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The Scent of Green Papaya | DVD Review

In a debut whose chief eloquence lies, paradoxically, in its simmering silences, Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung recalls the meditative filmmaking of masters like Ozu and Bresson—but not without his own inspired revisions.

In a debut whose chief eloquence lies, paradoxically, in its simmering silences, Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung recalls the meditative filmmaking of masters like Ozu and Bresson—but not without his own inspired revisions.

Received with hushed but almost unanimous acclaim when it was first released in 1993 and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film that year, The Scent of Green Papaya is a film that revels in its genrelessness, suggesting many paths—the family saga, the cinematic bildungsroman, the impossible love angle, the film-poem à la Tarkovsky’s The Mirror or Marker’s Sans Soleil—while never foreclosing any one of these routes. In approaching it, one tries desperately (and ultimately fruitlessly) to earmark it as this or that, but in the end it is so entirely assured of where it’s headed that it defies the kind of comfortable pigeonholing film criticism takes as its point of departure. All of which is to say that for a first film, The Scent of Green Papaya is something of a risky gambit, but one that, thankfully for viewer and filmmaker in turn, ends up working out quite well on the screen.

This riskiness derives in no small measure from what one would suppose to be the most important element of the film, the setting. Set in antebellum Viet Nam, during the French occupation, the film navigates the politics that are implicit in the setting the best way a film can—by not engaging it at all. Western viewers, whether American or French, will of course have it in their minds that, yes, this is Viet Nam, but it is not something that is particularly important to the unfolding of the narrative, and the fact that there is so little direct dialogue in the film makes even more difficult to make overt the political aspect of it. But it is also a difficult first film because of the characters themselves, in particular the protagonist Mui (played by Man San Lu as girl and Tran Nu Yên-Khê as a young woman, in both cases quite well), a young servant in the house of an upper-class family. She often acts as a vessel for or, better still, a window into the contemplation of land- and soundscapes that occasionally take over the screen—moments of cinematic transcendence that never feel contrived and surprisingly end up making her character more believable, rather than alienating her. Mui’s innocence, one understands on an almost visceral level, is in large measure the viewer’s innocence in entering this altogether foreign world, and her childish wonderment at it, even when she’s no longer a child in the final third of the movie, is shared by the viewer in the same way.

Tran Anh Hung has recently been tapped to adapt Haruki Murakami’s bestselling coming-of-age novel, Norwegian Wood. In the past twenty years he has built up a small but admirable filmography that can compete with that of any filmmaker of his generation, and the one with whom he has the clearest stylistic affinity is Hirokazu Kore-eda, both in his usage of music and in his long silences. But where Kore’eda marshals music and landscapes to paint psychological portraits of the characters themselves, Anh Hung forecloses that kind of invasiveness from the very beginning. One has the feeling of always lingering at the surface when watching films like The Scent of Green Papaya or, what is largely agreed to be his masterpiece so far, 1995’s landmark Cyclo. But this is deceptive, of course, because what Anh Hung does is negate the idea that a film must exist on two levels and meld surface aesthetic contemplation indissolubly with the psychologies of his characters.

This approach to characterization is evinced in some of Green Papaya most stirring moments: when Mui, once as a child and once as an adult, cuts open a papaya and touches the seeds, the way in which the two youngest sons of the family that takes her in at the beginning torture ants and other insects with candle wax (and how, conversely, Mui makes a cage and keeps crickets and beetles as pets), and how finally she hesitates while trying on the shoe of her second master’s girlfriend, slipping her foot in no sooner than slipping it back out and shambling out of the room. It is these moments that stick with one after everything is dispensed with, and they end up eclipsing the more farcical elements in the film, which sometimes descend to something like a cruelty-to-the-servant shtick, particularly where the youngest child is concerned, who inexplicably farts whenever he’s done something to Mui.

The knowledge that the film was shot in a closed set came as quite a surprise because the world that is created strikes one as completely seamless and this is owed to the amplitude that is lent the setting by the music, which here is modulated expertly. There is almost always something musical going on in the film, and when the music swells beyond the mallet and the steady forward beat of daily life, the film transcends its place and seems to come wide open, making one forget the politics and practicalities of the backdrop completely. It went on to earn Anh Hung the Camera d’Or at Cannes and a César Award for best debut in 1993.

This is the second DVD release of The Scent of Green Papaya in the North American region since the out-of-print original release in 2001, and so one feels a certain degree of gratitude just for the fact that it’s now available on something other than VHS. But that is largely where the gratitude ends, for the disc itself, beyond the film, actually contains very little in the way of extras. To be sure, the film has not merely been ported to DVD but has been remastered in HD, but beyond a dozen stills, the original theatrical trailer and a twelve-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, the disc itself is not an especially satisfying package. The behind-the-scenes featurette is handled quite well, or as well as these things can be handled, and the value of it lies for the most part in the way that it shows the transition from the actual filming to the finished product (which really is par for the course, as far as behind-the-scenes features go). Still, it is something, because the disc even lacks a commentary track, nor does it come with subtitles in any language other than English. At any rate, thankfulness for the admirable restoration to HD keeps it from being an altogether disappointing package, but this is due more to the film’s considerable virtues than to anything else.

The film itself more than justifies the purchase, but the disc is really bare-bones when it comes to the kind of extras the people that care about and ultimately purchase films like The Scent of Green Papaya have come to expect from these kinds of releases.

Movie rating – 4.5

Disc Rating – 2.5

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