The Scent of Green Papaya

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The film “The Scent of Green Papaya” by Tran Ahn Hung is an artful and touching representation of the world of Mui, a young servant girl. She was sent to work for a wealthy urban family from her country home. Mui finds beauty and happiness is everything around her. Unlike many stories involving similar characters and settings, this Mui is not abused by her mistress, but rather her mistress maintains a gentle relationship with her even later passing personal items to the servant girl the things she would have endowed on her own daughter had she survived. We learn that despite having healthy sons, the matriarch of the household continues to mourn for her only daughter lost to illness while her husband was gone for weeks spending the family fortune with another woman.
The viewer is also privy to the hierarchy of the family. Upstairs lives the mother-in-law of the family. She no longer leaves her small upstairs space choosing to spend her days praying and mourning her husband who died at an early age. In spite of this, a suitor from her youth continues to visit the home waiting outside hoping to catch a glance of the woman he’s loved most of his life. This suitor befriends Mui. Mui then convinces him to go inside and hide on the stairs where he can spy on the old woman praying. The husband and father of the family, who spends most of the film missing from family life later dies as a result of his lifestyle, leaving the family nearly destitute. Fortunately, the matriarch is able to rebound and the family is able to maintain their lifestyle for the next several years where the story resumes with the decision for Mui to now go work for a family friend because they can no longer afford to pay her. This move too proves to eventually work out to Mui’s good fortune and one can only hope this character continues to live on to her “happily ever after” even while the somewhat ominous sound of planes overhead leads up to the closing credits.
I would recommend this video as a good introduction to life in a Vietnamese city prior to the war. It provides a glimpse into family structure as well as the class structure of the time. The cinematography is beautiful and some of the close-ups of Mui present her almost Madonna-like.