Scent of Green Papaya, The

James Berardinelli


"The scent of green papaya is a personal childhood memory. Everyone [in Vietnam] knew the gestures associated with the preparation of the papaya and, since the houses weren't soundproofed, you often heard it being prepared in the house next door. You knew the sound because the papaya is hollow and when you hit it (with a knife), it makes a very characteristic noise. The papaya was really a part of everyday Vietnamese life. Since the green papaya was a vegetable prepared by women, it immediately becomes a symbol of women's work."
- Writer/director Tran Anh Hung

Most films depend on plot, character, and action to tell their story, but there are rare exceptions, one of which is The Scent of Green Papaya, the deceptively simple tale of two periods in the life of a Vietnamese girl named Mui (Lu Man San at age 10; Tran Nu Yen-Khe at age 20). Relying more on tone and feel, The Scent of Green Papaya manages to engross an audience because of its scrupulous attention to detail and its ability to effectively capture the essence of life's subtle, individual moments.

To say that The Scent of Green Papaya has no plot would be to misrepresent it. The movie is divided into two sections. The first, which takes place in 1951, details Mui's arrival as a young girl at the house where she will spend the next ten years of her life working as a servant. Midway through the film, the time frame shifts ahead a decade. Now Mui is working for Khuyen (Vuong Hoa Hoi), a music composer, and this portion of the story focuses on what transpires while she is with him.

The effectiveness of The Scent of Green Papaya is surprising considering its visual limits. Filmed on French sound stages rather than on-location in Vietnam, there is none of the lush vegetation one has come to expect from a film set in this country. Even the papaya trees are dead husks with real fruit and leaves glued to them (although it's not possible to tell this from watching the movie). On the other hand, the use of sound effects is excellent, from the chirping of a cricket to the roar of a plane overhead. In a film with so little dialogue (there is a space of 30 minutes where only several lines are uttered), music and sound effects become critical contributors.

The acting is adequate -- no more and no less, but because The Scent of Green Papaya focuses more on moments than characters, this isn't a serious detriment. Lu Man San, as Mui at 10 years old, is cute and impish, with a commendable variety of facial expressions. Her successor, Tran Nu Yen-Khe (the director's real-life fiancee) isn't as impressive. She smiles too much and possesses an almost-sinuously graceful body language that seems inappropriate to the circumstances.

What The Scent of Green Papaya does so well is to show the everyday life of a culture that has been bombed into history. This is the kind of motion picture that could easily become repetitive and boring, because so little happens. But, by involving the audience in the everyday minutiae of Vietnamese life, Tran Anh Hung holds the viewers' interest. The Scent of Green Papaya is made all the more enchanting by its simplicity.