Smell isn't the only sense evoked by Tran Anh Hung's "The Scent of Green Papaya," which opens today at the Charles. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to recall a film more in love with the sensual evocation of the universe.
Hung's account of a young peasant servant girl come to the big city of Saigon in 1951 to work at the house of a musician is unbelievably vivid: how things look, how they feel, how they smell. It's an amazing bit of movie imagining. He literally rubs you against the textures of existence -- the light in the air, the gelid humidity, the inflation of a frog's membranes as it breathes, the ,, pad of feet on mahogany floors -- that's astonishing.
Of course, the secret to such penetration is that for all the hyper-realism the movie evokes, it is actually the most acute of artifices. Working with gifted designers, Hung has constructed an entire world on a Paris sound stage. There probably hasn't been such a feat of make-believe passing for real since Kubrick shot all of "Full Metal Jacket" in a London suburb.
As young Mui (Lu Man San) tiptoes through the house of the prosperous musician that will be her new home, she takes sensual delight in its serene beauty, its secret glades, its functions, even as she is absorbed into the delicately neurotic family that occupies the place.
It should be noted that, like "Howards End" and "The Remains of the Day," this is another great house movie: This structure, so vividly evoked and so enchanting, comes almost to be a character in the drama. Perhaps it is an evocation of stately, repressed yet comforting Vietnamese bourgeoise culture in those years; or perhaps it is just a house.
But there is drama. Even as Mui learns her place and duties, she becomes aware of subtle dislocations, of dramas being played out quietly behind closed doors. A daughter has recently died, filling the house with the muted lassitude of despair. At the same time, the mother (Truong Thi Loc) and the father (Tran Ngoc Trung) are clearly at subtle odds with each other, though again Anh's method is by nature anti-dramatic. No big hot scenes, no screaming matches; instead one feels the slow erosion at the family core.
Eventually -- offscreen -- the husband leaves, to be with another woman. Mui hears the grandmother upbraid the mother for not being able to satisfy him sexually. We see the wear and tear on the surviving sons, who find their own expressions of pain; in fact, the youngest of them begins a mischievous war against Mui, waged with urine and explosively expelled body fumes, if you know what I mean.
This may not seem like much, and, at least in the western sense, it's not. But so delicate and lyrical is Hung's evocation that it seems in some sense magical, particularly as Hung keeps finding the symbolic uses of common household objects. The papaya, for example, is a symbol of Mui's yearning as she herself ripens toward womanhood. Or, Mui keeps a grasshopper caged in her room, an evocation of her own "imprisonment."
More important, he's able to effortlessly create the degree to which nature is an essential part of Mui's inner life: she's wondrously attuned to natural phenomena, and even in the city, she's able to sustain an imaginative contact with the countryside.
In its latter stages, "The Scent of Green Papaya" moves 10 years forward in time, to 1961. Mui moves from her beloved imprisonment to the home of a young musician whom she has admired from afar. There, as his servant, she begins to feel things for him, and although involved with a more "modern" young woman, he begins to respond. The drama, less perfectly evoked than her childhood, clearly has its roots in her childhood, and reiterates a theme, which is the choice between cultures -- cosmopolitan western or rural Vietnamese -- that was about to engulf that land. At least, in this version, there's a happy ending.
"The Scent of Green Papaya"
Starring Lu Man San and Tran Nu Yen-Khe
Directed by Tran Anh Hung
Released by First Look
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