Friday, January 06, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—The Scent of Green Papaya (1993) ****

NR, 104 min.
Director/Writer: Anh Hung Tran
Starring: Tran Nu Yên-Khê, Man San Lu, Thi Loc Truong, Anh Hoa Nguyen, Hoa Hoi Vuong, Ngoc Trung Tran, Van Oanh Nguyen, Gerard Neth, Nhat Do, Thi Hai Vo

If I were to imagine the word ‘exquisite,’ I might come up with the movie “The Scent of Green Papaya”. This movie is a glorious fascination. It is quiet and beautiful. It is rich and simple. It is drenched in a culture of which I am unfamiliar, yet it doesn’t attempt to explain it. To witness is to learn. To witness is to live, as we learn from the film’s heroine.

The story follows a young girl named Mui, who is employed as a servant for an affluent Vietnamese family in Saigon. The film takes place in 1961 and ten years later, but there is little in it about the war. There is little in it outside Mui’s perception of her world. She lives inside the estate and only ventures down the street for groceries. But, the life she experiences inside that home is enough for her, and she finds so much to love in her world.

The movie isn’t about a plot. It’s about witness and observation. In many ways, Mui lives a richer life than most, because she appreciates so much about her small corner of the world. The film is beautifully photographed by Benoît Delhomme (“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”). It is languidly paced, but not in a dull way. It moves in a way that allows you to see the same things that Mui sees in her world.

Later, she changes employment. Now a young woman, she serves a young pianist, who secretly obsesses about her as much as she does him. This brings to mind the beautiful music that so wonderfully accents the entire movie. The score by Tiêt Tôn-Thât is both melodic and abstract. There are times when his music sounds like one of the characters crying and others when it sounds like the daily details of Mui’s life. But, like the rest of the movie, it is always exquisite.

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