Kino Lorber // 1993 // 104 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // May 23rd, 2011
Director Tran Anh Hung's debut film, set in antebellum Vietnam, was an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film and winner of the Camera D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
The movie is a simple tale of a young peasant girl's rite of passage from childhood to adulthood in Saigon from 1951 to 1961. There is no explicit reference to politics or social history, but between the Viet Minh uprising against the French colonialists and President Eisenhower's increased military aid to the French -- culminating in the Vietnam war -- the way of life depicted in The Scent of Green Papaya has utterly vanished.
In 1951, Mui (Man San Lu), a ten-year-old peasant girl, walks all day from her rural village, arriving that night in Saigon at the house of her new mistress, a well-to-do shopkeeper by the name of La vieille Ti (Anh Hoa Nguyen). She begins her apprenticeship as cook and housekeeper, learning the art of cuisine from an older servant who she will eventually replace. Because her infant daughter died years earlier and would have been about Mui's age, Anh Hoa Nguyen becomes ever fonder of the servant girl as the years pass by.
Mui is a hard worker, but also a dreamy girl who is constantly distracted by the natural world, whether it be industrious ants carrying food to their nest, the sound of wind in the leaves, or the scent of papaya. Her workday is often disrupted by the younger of her mistress' two boys, who takes an evil delight in attempting to overturn her wash bucket, or dangling a lizard tied to a stick in front of her face. Mui does her best to ignore his torments with a Buddha-like calm.
In the second half of the film, Mui is a young woman (Trân Nu Yên-Khê). The household has fallen on hard times, and Anh Hoa Nguyen's son and wife decide to save money by sending Mui away to work for a wealthy young musician friend, a pianist, who slowly becomes attracted to the demure servant girl.
I've never smelled or tasted green papaya, but The Scent of Green Papaya is so visually intense I could almost imagine the odor as Mui peeled off the green skin and shred the milky white fruit onto a plate. The sensual play of image and sound throughout the film is delightful, almost hypnotic, but for all its dreamy landscapes, the film is actually a masterwork of precisely lit sets built for the movie; the vagaries of nature were shunted aside.
The film was shot entirely on a Parisian soundstage, eliminating all the problems of foul weather, intrusive sounds, and changing light. There are no true outdoor scenes, not even insert shots of the sky. The set's courtyard is as close as the movie comes to an out-of-doors simulation. Yet, the viewing experience feels anything but artificial. The small portion of the town in which the action takes place; insect sounds of a summer night; rain pattering on leaves; birds flitting from tree to tree; the gorgeously lit close-ups of faces, vases, vegetables frying in a wok -- all belie the artifice of an indoor set. The film becomes hallucinatory, hyper-real. Then add to the visual experience the unusual juxtaposition of a rather free-form, cacophonous jazz score.
The majority of the soundtrack, composed by An Ton That, is a dissonant, seemingly improvised avant-garde jazz that borrows from, among other sounds, insect twitters and chirps. The strident score sounded intrusive to me at first, but after a while it seemed a perfect complement to the almost overpoweringly beautiful visuals. The music is sharp and barbed, in stark opposition to the silken undulations of the cinematography. The score brings a sense of tension and anticipation, hinting at a degree of turmoil beneath the lovely, placid surface.
Aside from the sometimes threatening score, the darkening clouds on the horizon -- the coming Vietnamese war -- are only subtly alluded to in the film: The distant wailing of a siren that signals curfew, the mention of the danger of roaming about town at night. Mui's life dominates the film, and though the ending segues into fairytale territory, there is a always a slight, uneasy sense of foreboding for the contemporary audience, who with hindsight can see the approaching storm.
As for the disc itself, the Blu-ray transfer is wonderful, with moving images that practically leap from the screen. The rich color palette, dimensionality, and close-up detail are all superlative. The only flaw I could detect was a tendency for the film to be slightly on the bright side, causing some shadows to appear more dark gray than black. Since most of the film is brightly or softly lit, with few all-dark nighttime scenes, it's a minor defect. Dialogue in this movie is sparse, but it's clear and natural. The LPCM stereo track is excellent at conveying bird cries, crickets, frying foods, and other Foley sounds. The musical audio occasionally sounds slightly harsh, as though there is some clipping at the very high-end frequencies. Still, these are minor complaints for what is pretty much a reference quality transfer.
The only extras are a trailer, a few still pictures, and a 13-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that was videotaped during production. The movie deserves much more, but I'm so grateful to see such a first-rate remastering that it feels petty to gripe too much.
The story is simplistic, and the acting is decent, but not great. The brilliance of the movie lies in its cinematography, style, and grace. The Scent of Green Papaya one of the most visually absorbing films I have ever seen, and with a Blu-ray transfer that is close to perfect, it's a marvelous disc to pull out for showing off that latest hi-tech display.
Review content copyright © 2011 Russell Engebretson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (Vietnamese)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery