Vietnamese director Anh Hung Tran’s The Scent of Green Papaya is the cinematic representation of the phrase, “Stop and smell the roses” or in this case, smell the papayas. This is the kind of film that Terence Malick would’ve made if he were Vietnamese. The film paints a picture of Vietnam that most outsiders are not very familiar with. This is a Vietnam before the war, during the 1950s. It tells the story of a young orphan girl named Mui, who goes to work as a servant for a family in Saigon. The family comprises of a husband, his wife and three young sons. We learn that the family has lost a daughter who, if she were alive, would’ve been the age of Mui by now.
We see the family and their day-to-day activities from Mui’s eyes. This is a glum-looking and troubled family and it takes a while for her to get used to them. The mother grieves her daughter’s death every day. She gradually starts to see Mui as her daughter’s replacement. The father is a selfish and irresponsible man who squanders his money on gambling and brothels. The grandmother spends most of her time inside her room. So it’s the mother who takes care of the rest of the children and their textile business. The youngest of her sons are annoying miscreants. They constantly pick on Mui and interfere with her work. Mui works under the tutelage of the elderly housekeeper of the house and learns how to do the daily chores from her.
The film then moves forward ten years and we now see Mui all grown up into a beautiful and mature lady. The father passes away after succumbing to a fatal illness and the family has fallen on hard times. They have no option left but to send Mui to work for another household, that which belongs to Khuyen, a musician whom she met when she used to work for the previous family. Khuyen was the friend of their eldest son. We see that Khuyen is a sophisticated young man who is having trouble dealing with his high-maintenance fiancée. It takes a while for him to realize that it’s time to ditch her and start shifting his attention towards Mui, who seems like the ideal woman for him. Needless to say, it leads to a beautiful romance.
This is not one of those films that can be easily described. It’s not one with lofty aspirations and is something that has to be experienced. It’s a simple film that uses bare minimum dialogue and relies mostly on its visuals, ambient sounds and the characters’ gestures to tell its story. And there’s a LOT of gestures. This is about a character that has learned to stop time and appreciate the beauty of nature. She literally “stops and smells the roses”. Compared to the other characters in the film, she seems to be the only one who lives in harmony with nature. She takes time to pause, admire and feel everything that she sees around her. The Scent of Green Papaya is a sensuous, delicate and tranquil film that will reward patient viewers.