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‘The Scent of Green Papaya’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 18, 1994

"The Scent of Green Papaya," a French-Vietnamese production, is so delectably sensual, you'll swear you can smell things. It delves so passionately in the non-dramatic -- objects like insects and plants, intangibles like silence and color -- it transcends its own story.

Which is a good thing, considering there's no story at all. Actually, there is one, but it unfolds at a slow, fairy-tale pace -- probably too excruciating for entertainment-suckled audiences.

When 10-year-old peasant girl Mui (doe-eyed Lu Man San) enters a well-to-do Saigon household in 1951, she is on the eve of a lifetime of servitude. From old servant Thi (Nguyen Anh Hoa), she learns the domestic routine of the house (including papaya preparation), as well as its sad history.

The father of the household (Tran Ngoc Trung) constantly leaves home for days at a time with his wife's earnings. On one occasion when he left, he returned to find his daughter (who would be Mui's age) dead of a sudden sickness. Forever mourning this loss, he plays guitar plaintively on his divan.

The mother (Truong Thi Loc), aware that she does not sexually please her husband, nonetheless attends to him and her two sullen sons. She also operates a fabric shop. Upstairs, a grandmother, mourning her long-dead husband, refuses to leave her room. The house is entombed with sadness. The only movements are the silent, separate daily rituals of its inhabitants.

"Scent" (which won the Camera d'Or at Cannes, the prize for a first-time film) is to be savored abstractly. Its use of color, decor and visual composition is often stunning. From cinematographer Benoit Delhomme's forever-gliding vantage point, the family pall develops with an extraordinary, Buddhist-like choreography.

Unable to film in Vietnam, where film talent and resources were scant and an authentic 1950s-era household was impossible to find, director Tran Anh Hung built a soundstage replica. This is an enclosed-box movie. You never see sky, just glimpses of a world outside. You feel like a cricket in a cage, but in an exquisitely constructed one at that.

In the final section of the movie, the tale jumps 10 years. Dismissed from her first house (at the insistence of a new daughter-in-law), 20-year-old Mui becomes the servant of Khuyen (Vuong Hoa Hoi), a rich pianist who spends his days playing Chopin while a citified girlfriend tries vainly to distract him. Mui (now played by Tran Nu Yen-Khe) has loved Khuyen (a friend of one of the sons) from an early age. Their coming romance is a sensuous inevitability.

Director Tran Anh Hung says that he wanted to evoke the Vietnam of his youth, where you could hear the hollow sound of papaya cutting in neighboring houses, where life was a series of quiet, graceful rituals. "Scent" is a captured memory, a living, breathing reverie rather than a narrative. It's also the birth of a great talent. With a narratively absorbing story, Tran Anh Hung can only go to greater achievements.

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