French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung pushes the boundaries of sound and vision to evoke bodily sensations in his breakthrough feature The Scent of Green Papaya
Film is a medium that engages with two of the fundamental human senses: sight and sound. And yet in his Camera D’Or-winning debut feature The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), French-Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung goes to great lengths to try to evoke those other senses cinema cannot technically express – smell, taste and touch. This sensual preoccupation feels particularly apt given that the film is in many ways an exploration of memory – the narrative partially crafted around the director’s recollections of a country he left behind when he was just a child – and it is indeed scent, the titular sense, that we most strongly associate with the triggering of long-lost and intensely personal memories. Here it serves, like Proust’s madeleine, as a window into the past.
Tran Anh Hung was born in Mỹ Tho in the Mekong Delta region of South Vietnam in 1962, but immigrated to France at the age of twelve, following the fall of Saigon. Upon arrival his family moved into the Parisian suburbs, where his parents worked as tailors fitting uniforms for the French army. It was a decade later, while studying philosophy as an undergraduate in Paris, that Tran chanced upon a late-night screening of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) and was so moved by what he saw unfolding on screen that he immediately decided to transfer his attention to filmmaking. He enrolled at the Louis-Lumière Academy, training primarily as a cinematographer, where he made the accomplished short film The Married Woman of Nam Xuong (1987) – which was presented at Critics’ Weeks in Cannes in 1989 and very much serves as a precursor to The Scent of Green Papaya, given its formal preoccupations with documenting the minutiae of domestic Vietnamese life.
However, Tran dropped out of film school in the midst of his final exams, proclaiming: “I didn’t want to have a diploma. Because I knew that if I had it, my parents would ask me to work. And then I would be a cameraman for TV, then I would earn a lot of money and have an apartment, a girlfriend …” Desperate to avoid these material trappings, Tran instead took a job at the Musée d’Orsay bookshop, where for four years he utilised the time and freedom that dodging career responsibilities afforded him to write screenplays and make short films. This professional hiatus spent honing his craft ultimately proved fortuitous when, in 1993, he managed to secure financing from renowned producer Christophe Rossignon’s company Lazennec Productions to make his first feature-length project: The Scent of Green Papaya.
The film forms the first instalment of what has come to be known as the director’s ‘Vietnamese Trilogy’, followed by the equally-acclaimed Cyclo (1995) and A Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000). And yet unlike the latter two films, for reasons we will discuss later, it was not shot on location in Vietnam but rather on a French studio lot soundstage. Set in Saigon in 1951, The Scent of Green Papaya documents the fortunes of Mùi, a young servant girl who goes to work for an aristocratic family that has fallen on hard times, their finances ruined by the father’s gambling addiction. Taken under the wing of an elderly maid, Mùi quickly learns how to attend to the domestic duties of the household and to navigate its complex interpersonal dynamics: cooking, cleaning, gathering supplies from the nearby marketplace, taking meals up to the neurotic grandmother who hasn’t left the attic in seven years, and avoiding the family’s obnoxious youngest son who has a proclivity for flatulence, tantrums and dangling small reptiles from fishing rods. The boy also harbours a penchant for urinating in plant pots and flowerbeds, which one can’t help but suspect is an autobiographical flourish on the part of the filmmaker.
Narratively speaking, very little happens for the first hour of the film, which takes place almost entirely inside the same household and the grounds of its modest garden, before a decade-long temporal ellipsis sees the final act follow Mùi, now a young woman, as she moves into a new job and ultimately finds love, freedom and happiness. Dialogue is used minimally throughout, with entire sequences passing by wordlessly. The score, by Vietnamese composer Tôn-Thât Tiêt, is also used sparingly – although it is utterly arresting when it does arrive, with trembling strings and threatening shades of Krzysztof Penderecki that starkly contrast the almost perpetual calm silence of the household. Yet it is within this first hour and its insular location that Tran creates a remarkably rich, textured and controlled cinematic universe that feels utterly self-contained and is never less than mesmerising. He adopts a quietly radical storytelling approach through which to explore it – the drama driven not by plot twists and character revelations, but almost entirely by Mùi’s sensory interactions with her strange new environment. Through touch, taste and smell.
We follow young Mùi as she learns the ropes of domestic servitude under the elderly maid’s tutelage: being taught which are the best oils to cook certain vegetables with, how to enhance the flavour of modest dishes with salt and soy sauce. Everything is presented in an extremely tactile manner: we see her dusting off ornaments, mopping the hardwood floors with a wet rag, gathering fresh papaya fruit from the garden and preparing them to be served – hacking away at the pale flesh with a machete, scraping off the juicy shreds to be eaten, and inquisitively prodding the strange orb-like seeds revealed in the core of the plant with her fingertip. Mùi is a vigilant investigator, rarely speaking, but feeling out every corner of the household with every sensory receptor available to her. It is notable that one of the first actions we see Mùi take, as she wakes up to her first day of work, is to lean out her bedroom window and sniff the air – the smells emanating from the maid’s cooking in the kitchen fill her nostrils and lungs. And when we see her awaken in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, the camera lingers closely on her bare feet as they tip-toe across the cool tile floor in such a manner that it’s hard not to feel a pang of sensation in one’s own extremities. This is Tran’s key tactic in the film – through inviting the audience to an unwavering perceptual identification with Mùi, he makes you feel everything she does, taste everything she tastes, to the extent that you genuinely start to imagine the scents she smells wafting up your own nose.
Perhaps the most dramatic moment in the entire first hour is when an almost divine, Tarkovsky-esque breeze comes wafting in through an open window, sending the net curtains fluttering, to alleviate the oppressive heat as Mùi lies sweating in her bed. The sense of relief and catharsis is palpable. Another key moment of tension occurs when the brattish youngest son threatens to spill Mùi’s water bucket all over the living room floor. The camera presents his toes curling over the rim of the wooden bucket in extreme close-up, the sound of water sploshing over the edge seeming somehow far more ominous and threatening than it really should be. In a rare moment of transgression from Mùi, when she comes across a stick of red lipstick belonging to the lady of the house and decides to try it on, again the action is presented in extreme close-up – in stark contrast to the rest of the visual grammar of the film, which relishes in long tracking shots – so that the audience too can almost sense the tip of lipstick being dabbed on their own lips.
Despite Tran’s initial intention to shoot the film on location in Vietnam, the film was shot entirely on a soundstage in the Parisian suburb of Boulogne due to a pretty severe production scheduling miscalculation – which failed to take into account the country’s monsoon season. However, far from hindering the production, the necessity of creating an artificial corner of Saigon in a French film studio actually granted Tran far more control over his environment and creates a strange simulacrum-like effect that serves to heighten the sense of this all being a distant memory of a place, rather than a completely accurate representation of it. That said, the household where Mùi works is replicated and lit in meticulously realistic detail, and Tran’s formal training as a cinematographer is ever-apparent on screen – there’s a specificity to the light at any given moment, to the direction and placement of shadows in a room, that lets the audience know exactly what time of day it is and where the sun is supposedly positioned in the sky. Another oddly realistic touch is the inclusion of real plants and creatures on set. The garden is lined with actual soil which we see being watered. There are live animals and insects everywhere: lizards, ants, birds. Fish can be seen sploshing around in buckets littered about the place, frogs sit floating in the pond. There are beetles trapped in wooden cages and scuttling around the bottom of cracked pots. And most importantly, there are actual papaya trees growing everywhere, dripping milky fluid when their fruit is cut from the branch. It’s an incredible achievement from production designer Alain Negre, creating a version of a 1950s Saigon household that is almost real yet features enough artificiality to allow Tran to focus in on those specific sensual touches with a level of formal and environmental control that location shooting would never have afforded him.
Over the years, Tran would continue to grow in confidence and ambition as a filmmaker, moving away from his more obvious aesthetic influences – Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Bresson, Bergman – to develop his own unique visual style. The use of location shooting and the sheer scale of his storytelling in Cyclo and A Vertical Ray of the Sun show an ever-increasing level of formal sophistication. His later films would see Tran moving into ever more adventurous territory, both geographically and in terms of genre, such as his American neo-noir I Come with the Rain (2009), the acclaimed Haruki Murakami adaptation Norwegian Wood (2010) set in 1960s Japan, and his sweeping multi-generational French family saga Eternité (2016). And yet there is something so assured in the quiet simplicity of his feature debut, something so daring and unique about his choice to eschew plot mechanics in favour of what is essentially a succession of sensory interactions, that it demands and rewards repeat viewings. It is a cinema of texture and detail, transfixing and hypnotic, to be savoured like a moment of quiet solace in a crude and clamouring world.