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Film review: Scent of Green Papaya, The

Published: Tuesday, May 10 1994 12:00 a.m. MDT

There have been many movies, often with political agendas, that have attempted to convince the audience that the hustle and bustle of modern life is more than ever causing us to overlook the natural beauties of our planet, suggesting that simply slowing down might bring more inner peace.

But none have been as singularly persuasive as "The Scent of Green Papaya," a quiet, evocative little film from Vietnam that covers a 10-year period — from 1951 to 1961 — and makes its argument without fan-fare or stark drama.

Instead, the story focuses on a young girl, and in the final third the same character as an adult woman, as she accepts her lot in life and goes about making the best of it.

Mui, played in the bulk of the film as a child by Lu Man San, is a country girl from a small village who becomes a servant in a rich household at the tender age of 10. She is able to occasionally visit her mother, thanks to the kindness of her mistress, but devotes most of her life to cooking, cleaning and generally making life easier for the wealthy, self-centered family she serves.

In the background of the movie, these family members are in a constant state of upheaval, suffering one soap-opera crisis after another, thanks largely to the head of the household, who periodically disappears with the family savings for several weeks of debauchery. And even when he's home, his disrespect for his wife causes her pain and allows the children to become disruptive and unruly — with their aggressions sometimes aimed at Mui.

But Mui remains untouched by it all, through sheer willfullness and devotion to duty. Her pleasures in life are simple, as she gazes at the natural wonders around her — an ant lifting and toting a crumb of food, the splash of water in a pool on a particularly hot day and even the food she prepares, especially the symbolic seeds of life within the green papayas, shown in closeup as she slices them open. (Food is as sensuous here as it is in "Babette's Feast" and "Like Water for Chocolate," and as in those films, its preparation never seems like drudgery in Mui's hands.)

In the film's final third, the grown-up Mui (Tran Nu Yen-Khe) finds herself forced to seek work elsewhere, becoming employed by a friend of the first family — someone for whom Mui has obviously felt affection over the years. And ultimately, she receives her reward for a lifetime of optimism.

Visually absorbing and most engrossing for its subtext, "The Scent of Green Papaya" is a work of nostalgia for 31-year-old filmmaker Tran Anh Hung, who left his homeland for France in 1975, and who seems to be intent here on chronicling a Vietnamese lifestyle that has long since disappeared. And though he makes no direct comment on the war or American involvement therein, heavy air traffic on the soundtrack in the final third alludes to the changes that are about to take place.

This lovely film is part of the 2nd Annual International Film Festival playing at the Tower Theater and Salt Lake Community College through next week. Deservedly, "The Scent of Green Papaya" will also play in a regular commerical run at the Tower.