An exquisite exploration of a Vietnamese servant girl’s private world in ’50s Saigon, The Scent of Green Papaya marks a striking feature bow by 30-year-old helmer Tran Anh Hung. French-funded movie was entirely shot in a studio outside Paris.
First hour, set in 1951, limns the everyday chores and small joys of Mui (Tran Nu Yen-Khe), a peasant girl engaged by a family headed by a feckless, spendthrift father. Working alongside old servant Thi (Nguyen Anh Hoa), she learns cooking and cleaning, plus the inner workings of the extended family. Mui slowly develops a secret liking for Khuyen (Vyong Hoa Hoi), a friend of the eldest son, Trung (Souvannavong Keo).
Pic’s second seg, 10 years later, finds the family on hard times and Mui, now a true beauty, is sent to work at the house of Khuyen, a talented classical pianist. Though he has a flirtatious g.f., Khuyen starts to notice Mui’s devotion, and love flowers.
It’s a film of small events, often quietly humorous, that builds to a moving but undogmatic portrait of quiet female strength. Dialogue, especially in the second part, is sparse, with events often recounted simply through music and Hung’s constantly tracking camera. Star of the movie is production designer Alain Negre’s main set of the rambling family house and street outside, both with a natural, lived-in look and packed with detail.
1993: Nomination: Best Foreign Language Film