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'The Scent of Green Papaya' (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 18, 1994

In "The Scent of Green Papaya," Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung's exquisite, inscrutable elegy for the lost country of his birth, time is counted not in minutes or hours, but in human measures -- heartbeats and muffled prayers. Thrust into prominence as the first official entry from Vietnam to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, this is actually a placid, smallish picture where almost nothing happens, a collection of symmetries and delicate perceptions so subtly inflected that they register somewhere beneath consciousness.

Tran has a story to tell, as well as a point to make about the corrupting influence of French colonialism on the Vietnamese culture, but he emphasizes the film's languid rhythms and dense textures rather than characterization or narrative. The movie begins in Saigon in 1951 as a 10-year-old peasant girl named Mui (Lu Man San) takes her place as a servant for a moderately well-off family of six. During these early scenes, as Mui is instructed in the family's serenely ritualistic daily habits by an older servant (Nguyen Anh Hoa), Tran uses his camera to nudge us into sync with the contemplative pace of life in this quiet, seemingly normal Asian household.

But as Mui soon learns, this surface harmony functions merely as a mask to disguise the pain and uncertainty that lie just beneath. The family, she's told, lives in the shadow caused by the tragic death of their only daughter, who fell ill when, without explanation, the father disappeared for days with all their savings several years back. Since then, the father has refused to leave the house, while the family matriarch lives in self-imposed exile upstairs, where she laments to their ancestors over her fate.

What all this means to Mui, who blossoms into a beautiful woman in this rarefied, curiously dysfunctional atmosphere, is more than a little hard to decipher. In fact, Tran is never able to bring any of his themes into sharp focus. The relationships here -- between Mui and her employers, as well as those within the family itself -- seem vague and inchoate.

If there's something to get here, Tran seems confused about what it is and what it all means. For example, when the father vanishes yet again with the family loot, leaving them so broke they can't even buy rice, the event has no dramatic impact. Tran never even tells us why the man left, or where he went, or what happened when he got there -- he just leaves us hanging.

In the second half of the film, the story jumps ahead 10 years to 1961, but it is not a leap into clarity. Because her employers can no longer afford to pay for her services, Mui (played as an adult by Tran Nu Yen-Khe) is forced to go to work for a rich young composer (Vuong Hoa Hoi) who, as a friend of the family's, she has known -- and been secretly in love with -- for years. But the dynamics of this affair are as murky and unsatisfying as the rest of the story.

By this point, though, we've already lost patience with the painstakingly slow progress of events and Tran's maddeningly abstruse approach to his material. Granted, "The Scent of Green Papaya" is rapturously handsome. Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme's images are poetically fluid and Ton-That Tiet's inspired score complements them beautifully, but, ultimately, the movie has far more style than substance. At first, the movie's restraint is enticing, and even soothing. By the end, though, Tran's strategies have an enervating, numbing effect. The same methods he uses to pull us in finally kill our interest.

The Scent of Green Papaya is not rated.

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