The Scent of the Green Papaya (1993)

25 05 2008

I suppose it’s quite fitting that I finally got around to seeing Tran Anh Hung’s first feature after watching a pair of films from Hiroshi Shimizu. The unique “plotlessness” of Shimizu that I have lionized these past two days seems to have a found a modern link in this and The Vertical Ray of the Sun. A few months back I saw the latter film, which is undeniably beautiful but at the time, I was far too concerned with the limitations of the narrative. Like Shimizu, Tran’s aforementioned features (Cyclo, while great, doesn’t fall into this category) are, on the surface, very cheerful and easy-going. In addition, both seem very keen on long tracking shots through multiple rooms. Unfortunately for Tran, his strokes aren’t nearly as masterful as Shimizu’s when it comes to characters.

Mui, a young girl, becomes a servant for a mourn-stricken family. She observes their multiple ways of dealing with pain. The grandmother, saddened by the loss of her husband and her grandchild, spends all of her time praying. The older boy in the family spends his time making wax bugs while the younger one creates mischief, teases Mui, and above all, farts. (More than likely a nod to Ozu’s Good Morning) The household’s mother handles her sadness much better, but when her husband leaves with the family savings, she can no longer bear the pain. Ten years later, Mui is still working as a servant but now she does so for an engaged songwriter.

As always, Tran’s greatest cinematic strength is his literal attention to detail. There are thousands of shots in this and his other two films that reveal the textures to the smallest of objects. It seems pointless to even attempt to comprehend the beauty of the images here. Even screenshots do little to no justice to the feelings they produce when witnessed in live motion. The film never really has a dull moment because it can really appreciated without any understanding of the developments in the plot.

This is the film’s downfall, then, I suppose. While the film’s opening moments feel natural and uncontrived, the final section is dampened by goofy Cinderella-inspired symbolism. This isn’t too much of a problem, per se, but the mood is inconsequential to begin with so once the drama begins to kick in, it feels very manufactured. Perhaps I am simply resisting calling it a masterpiece, which is what it should be. The awe-inducing images combined with a setup that obviously has roots in the films of Ozu and (Satyajit) Ray: sounds like something I should be embracing on all levels. If only it had maintained that observation/carefree sensibility the whole way through. Still, it is a wonderful debut from a wonderful director, who, unfortunately, has a very small output.

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2 responses

27 05 2008
Doug

Great write-up on this very memorable film, and thanks, too, for your commentary on Shimizu, a filmmaker of whom I’m unaware, but one who sounds right down my alley.

“It seems pointless to even attempt to comprehend the beauty of the images here. Even screenshots do little to no justice to the feelings they produce when witnessed in live motion.”

I have to say, I had the pleasure of seeing The Vertical Ray of the Sun (though I prefer the UK title, At the Height of Summer, which makes a lot more sense!) on celluloid when it was released, and I found the visual textures absolutely intoxicating. Later, I excitedly rented the DVD…but I could hardly watch the film; it felt so different on video that I turned it off halfway through. I’m convinced that Tran’s images are must-sees on film to appreciate what he’s doing. (Though I still admire his other two films, which I’ve only seen on DVD.)

By the way, you probably already know, but I recently learned Tran is finishing his first film in many years–but it’s a Hollywood thriller starring Josh Hartnett, which is definitely worrisome.

Funny connection with Ozu’s Ohayo–you very well may be right that it’s an homage.

27 05 2008
Jake Savage

Thanks for the kind words, Doug. It means quite a lot coming from a community veteran such as yourself. For now, I can only imagine what Tran’s films look like on the big screen but I can say that Cyclo had a substantial impact on me when I originally viewed it on a very tiny TV screen. I suppose it can be appreciated under not so ideal conditions because it is a bit more kinetic than his other two features. Perhaps that’s what he’s going for with this new Josh Hartnett project? I dunno, it sounds absolutely terrible, even if Tran Nu Yên-Khê and Takuya Kimura are involved. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

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