Taking such an approach when it comes to watching
"The Scent Of Green Papaya" would be at best frustrating, and at
worst disasterous. The movie is the cinematic equivalent of a lazy
summer day; it slowly unfolds and envelopes you in its atmosphere,
it's unhurried and unconcerned with quickly revealing itself.
Instead, "The Scent Of Green Papaya" is more concerned with drawing
you in, making you notice the wonders behind seemingly trivial
events and details.
On the surface, the film concerns a
young girl named Mui who arrives as a new servant to a Vietnamese
household in 1950s Saigon. Although she's the main character, the
film doesn't so much focus on her as on her new household. Through a
series of seemingly random slices of life -- the obnoxious son who
always undoes Mui's work, the mother who sees Mui as her dead
daughter, the father who abandons his family for other women -- we
find out just as much about the lives the characters lead as if they
each gave monologues. Through Mui, we watch the trivial details of
everyday life in the house, the daily rituals and routines that
drive the house. However, we also discover the wonder behind some of
these rituals. Throughout the film, Mui is often captivated by the
world around her, and through her, we become captivated as well. It
may be something as trivial as papaya juice dripping onto a leaf,
but her reaction, and the way it is handled by the camera, turns it
into a meditative moment.
The movie then flashes forward 10
years. Mui is a now a beautiful young woman, but she is still much
the same. The family she serves has fallen on hard times, and so she
is sent to live with a family friend, a young composer. As with the
first part of the movie, Mui slowly acclimates herself to this new
household. The young man she lives with slowly becomes enamored with
her, and as the movie ends, a love affair between the two emerges.
Although much of what I'd read about "The Scent Of Green
Papaya" threw about words like "erotic" and "sexual awakening", I
feel such words are innacurate. Although the last few scenes in the
movie could be labelled as such, it is handled quite tastefully and
the growing sexuality of Mui is never trivialized or used for mere
titillation. If anything is sensual about the movie, it is the
visuals and use of sound.
Although the movie was filmed on a
soundstage, you would never be able to tell. The camera is never
empty, nor is it ever filled with artificial-looking objects. The
camera is always occupied by lush flora, the wide open spaces of the
house where Mui lives, the small details that flow through ordinary
events and everyday life. Acting-wise, don't expect any
"traditional" tour-de-forces. The movie is not about great acting,
but about presenting the ordinary details of life. As such, the
acting is wonderful, because they are not required to be anything
more than normal people. Both actresses who portray Mui are simply
radiant, especially Man San Lu, who portrays Mui as a young child.
Her face is absolutely angelic when she focuses on the antics of the
animals who surround her, or when she develops a crush on a young
man visiting the house (the same man she later goes on to serve) and
serves him dinner. It's the little things like this that make this
The use of sound is especially important, since
a majority of the movie contains no dialog. Because the characters
speak so little, it is up to the sounds of the world that surrounds
them to speak, to describe what goes on. It could be the chirping of
crickets, the rhythmic sounds of a prayer drum, the music that flows
throughout the house, or a simple rainstorm. Like the visuals, it
describes a lush, exotic world where words don't always need to be
said in order to feel what's going on.
I know many people
who would watch this movie and say that nothing happens, or who
would be easily bored by it. And I can completely understand why.
However, whatever people might consider to the film's weaknesses
are, in reality, its strengths. "The Scent Of Green Papaya" concerns
itself with being realistic, with finding the beauty in the
ordinary. Therefore, it is not easily compacted and presentable. It
requires more than just a soundbite to describe the beauty of a
rainstorm, or show how beautiful sap dripping onto a leaf can be, or
watch a young girl grow up to become a radiant woman. Thankfully,
this is not the approach "The Scent Of Green Papaya" takes.