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The Scent of Green Papaya (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on September 16, 2014

This is my 6th time watching this film.  Each time I get a little more out of it, plunging further into its hidden depths.  At first I was simply intoxicated with its atmosphere.  Tran’s recreation of 1951 and 1961 Saigon is unspeakably lovely.  He takes time to drink in all the details: papaya juice dripping onto a leaf, the ripples in a bucket of water, the play of sun and shadow, the intricate decorations on an urn.  With lush greens and gentle golds, he creates a visual feast.  And he tantalizes the ears as well.  The soundtrack is exquisitely designed, with the chirp of crickets and other wildlife, the shuffle of feet and rustling of garments, the hollow clop-clop-clop of the grandmother’s prayer ritual.  But the sound tells of something beyond the serene environment.  In 1951, “the Vietnam War” as we Americans think of it hadn’t started yet, but conflicts with the French were in full swing with the First Indochina War.  In the film we often hear the siren of curfew, or planes passing overhead.  It is one sign that not everything is lovely in this lovely place.  There’s also the music, which is beautiful but punctuated with shrill flutes that create a sense of unease and tension.

While watching this time, I felt that unease in the way the romance between Mui and Khuyen plays out.  Throughout the film, Mui’s employers are kind to her but the power structure is implicit.  The exception is the youngest child, who doesn’t yet know how to wield his power with subtlety.  Mui doesn’t ever speak to her masters unless spoken to, and even as an adult she bows her head obsequiously in their presence.  We don’t know what Mui did in her childhood years before 1951, but it seems that being a servant has practically been bred into her.  She is always on the outside peering in (the use of interior and exterior space is masterfully handed).  So what does it mean when Khuyen enters her space?  Is this the romantic moment we’ve all been waiting for (yay, he finally noticed her!)… or is it a more sinister exploitation?  Is the Westernized Khuyen invading Mui’s traditional Vietnam?  He teaches her to read, but in a rigid fashion.  There is a proper distance that must be maintained between the face and the page.  Did she even want this, or is she simply trying to please the master?  Again, she never speaks to him unless reading from the page.

The film ends with a poem, suggesting that whatever water Mui is reflected in, she is still Mui.  Vietnam will go through changes and be influenced by the West, but the heart and soul of Vietnam endures.  The camera pans up to the face of Buddha.  We are given these images of harmony (as the poem says: “If there’s a verb meaning to stir harmoniously, it should be used here”) but I feel there is an irony behind them.  But I also don’t think it’s an outright condemnation of Westernization… remember, it’s a thoroughly French production shot on a soundstage by a French crew, only the director and performances are Vietnamese.  Rather, I think there’s a duality at play.  These power structures devalue people, these influences disturb our culture… but we can also find harmony.  Things can be both bad and good at the same time.  Mui and Khuyen can experience a true love, and it can also be exploitative and creepy.  We don’t discount the good just because it’s also bad, and we don’t forgive the bad just because it’s also good.

I don’t honestly know what Tran was going for, but given the amount of (understated) tragedy and conflict in the first part of the film, it seems unwise to write off the second part as just a simple romance.  There’s a lot going on here, and who knows, maybe it wasn’t intended, but I find it in there nonetheless.  And it’s also a film one can savor entirely on a surface level, a breathtaking exhortation to enjoy and appreciate the little things.  Mui tends to the little things in the world, perhaps because she herself is a little thing.  Rating: Masterpiece (97)


2 Responses to “The Scent of Green Papaya (rewatch)”

  1. Dan Heaton said

    This film is so gorgeous. I’ve only seen it once, but I’d love to revisit it. It’s one of those films that would be great to see in the theater because it’s so beautiful, yet it might make me sleepy at the same time. I also really like The Vertical Ray of the Sun.

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