Editor, U.S. ; Dallas, Texas (@HatefulJosh)
Kino International:
An Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Tran Anh Hung's "luxuriant, visually seductive debut" (New York Times) recreates antebellum Vietnam through both the wide eyes of childhood and the deep blush of first love. In 1951 Saigon, 10 year old Mui (Lu Man San) enters household service for an affluent but troubled Vietnamese family. Despite her servile role, Mui discovers beauty and epiphany in the lush physical details that envelope her, while earning the fragile affection of the household's grieving matriarch. As she comes of age, the now grown Mui (Tran Nu Yen-Khe) finds her relationship with a handsome pianist she has admired since childhood growing in depth and complexity.

Though steeped in writer-director Tran Anh Hung's southeast Asian heritage, The Scent of Green Papaya was realized entirely within a Parisian soundstage. The film's heady, scrupulously detailed and wholly authentic depiction of a society in decline, a family in quiet turmoil, and lovers on the threshold of romance earned the Camera D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. A timeless evocation of life's universal enchantment and a powerful portrait of a vanished world, The Scent of Green Papaya is "a film to cherish." (Roger Ebert)
To say that The Scent of Green Papaya moves at a languid pace would be overestimating its raison d'etre.  The film exists not as a journey from one place to another.  There is very little plot to speak of, and the characters inhabit the spaces in which we see them, and no others.  There is no action, nor is there much dialogue, and yet, the film is an hour and forty six minutes of riveting cinematic opulence.

Trần Anh Hùng's debut film is an absolute masterpiece, and one which he has been chasing ever since.  He shows himself to be a master of mise-en-scène, which typically comes with experience, but with little else behind him, he created a film that uses every visual and auditory cinematic tool to engage our primordial brain. Trần Anh Hùng's use of the camera is astonishing and destroys the viewer over and over again with achingly beautiful cinematography and extreme close-ups of real like that make one lean toward the screen.

This is a film made of and about love.  Mui, the main character, pines for a young man that she knew as a young girl in the service of a wealthy Vietnamese family.  She doesn't think that she'll ever get him, and eventually she is given into his service as a twenty year old maid.  Every day she cleans up after him with a sense of love, rather than obligation, and she fantasizes about being in the place of his irritating and demanding fiancée.  We get the sense that despite her longing for Khuyen, the man in question, she is content simply being in his presence and showing her affection through her work.

It is an overused assertion that a film is beautiful enough that any individual frame could be placed on a wall in an art gallery, but in the case of The Scent of Green Papaya, it is true.  The intensely intricate sets, the slice of natural life close-ups that seem to echo the emotions on screen when words couldn't do them justice, it is all shot perfectly.  A frame out of place, or a camera angle off-kilter even the slightest bit could send this film tumbling to the ground in a heap of its own pretension, but Trần Anh Hùng never allows that to happen, and so it exists.  The film exists in its own world, without need for context or explanation, it simply is.

The disc:

I've seen The Scent of Green Papaya a couple of times before on DVD, but those presentations were an embarrassment.  Kino International have completely remastered the film and cleaned it up to a degree I wouldn't have thought possible.  The image is absolutely amazingly clear and lush.  At first some might be disturbed by the lack of grain in the image, but this is easily explained by the fact that the entire film was shot on a sound stage, which allows the cinematographer to completely control the lighting and therefore use the slowest films possible to achieve a mostly grain-free image.  I thought I'd seen this film before on DVD, but I'd never seen anything anywhere near this beautiful.  I'd wager a guess that it has probably never looked this good, perhaps even on film.  The audio is a DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track that is remarkably clear, with excellent use of musical cues and the occasional stereo panning effect.  The film is not going to test your speakers, but I will definitely use it as a reference disc for video.

Kino International chose to focus on the quality of the audio and video for this release, and it shows.  As a result, the only extras are a picture gallery, a twelve minute vintage behind the scenes featurette (which is where I was astonished to learn that it was on filmed on a set), and a trailer.  Nothing fancy, but with a film this beautiful and engaging, I'm completely satisfied with the package I got.

Kino International have done right by The Scent of Green Papaya.  It looks and sounds absolutely incredible, and it is well worth whatever price you find. 

The Scent of Green Papaya

  • Tran Anh Hung
  • Tran Anh Hung
  • Tran Nu Yên-Khê
  • Man San Lu
  • Thi Loc Truong
  • Anh Hoa Nguyen
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Tran Anh HungTran Nu Yên-KhêMan San LuThi Loc TruongAnh Hoa NguyenDramaMusicRomance

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