Tuesday, 12 January 2010
The Scent of Green Papaya (Review)
There are certain films in which the cinematography is so good that no other tool is necessary to tell the story. These movies could pass off as silent flicks and no one would bat an eyelid, so beautifully shot they are. 'Cinema Paradiso', with its flashback narrative and stunning shots of the Sicilian landscape, is one of them. Another that comes to mind is 'Le Grand Bleu' (The Big Blue), the best homage to the Mediterranean Sea I have ever seen in my life. And to this list I would like to add 'The Scent of Green Papaya', a French-produced, Vietnamese film, which I first saw many years ago, in 1995.
The movie tells the story of Mui, a peasant girl, who becomes a servant for a middle-class family. The mother, Truong Thi Lôc, is still grieving for her dead daughter, who would have been Mui's age, and this leads her to treat the latter as her own child. This first part of the film is seen through Mui's innocent eyes and the result is a very palpable and physical product. The sounds we hear, the food Mui and the cook make and the words the different characters utter, feel ever so real. There are lots of close-ups, from a bug that meets an early death as a consequence of one of the children's experiments to the preparation of the title-inspiring papaya recipe, a delicacy in Vietnam.
The second part catches Mui as a young woman after she has left Truong Thi Lôc's household to become the servant for a pianist who happens to be also a friend of the family. Mui falls for him but he is already engaged to a very lively woman. Whereas his wife-to-be only wants to go to parties and soirées, the groom just wants to stay home and play the piano. Unlike the first thirty or forty minutes of the film, where the approach is more angelic and blithe, the second act has an almost balletic proposition. The three main characters pirouette - literally in one scene - around each other, and their elongated figures point more at the world of turned-in legs than the domain of cinemascope.
The dénouement finds the pianist choosing Mui over his fiancée after spending a night with the former. On watching the movie for the second time, I was not sure whether there was a subliminal message behind the pianist's decision. Could it be that the director was implying that passivity (Mui's) was an attribute to which women ought to strive rather than independence, as symbolised by the pianist's former inamorata? Food for thought there.
What cannot be denied is that 'The Scent of Green Papaya' is one of those films that sticks in one's mind forever. A little cinematic, and dare I say, balletic gem, indeed.
Next Post: 'Road Songs', to be published on Thursday 14th January at 11:59pm (GMT)