Response to The Scent of Green Papaya

Anh Hung Tran’s film, The Scent of Green Papaya, is full of slow continuous shots which move easily between indoor and outdoor settings. These shots serve to conflate the two settings, and reflect Mui’s ambivalent standing within the family. Mui is held both within the family and without, as the mother views her in her daughter’s place and the two sons strive to keep her out of the inner family. Although the movie is set at the end of French colonial power in Vietnam, and before full American involvement, very little mention is paid to these two outside powers, except that Mui’s place in the family may be read as a metaphor for the experience of a colonized people. In other words, just as Mui occupies an ill-defined, liminal space within the family, a colonized country occupies an ill-defined, liminal space in relation to itself. Such a country lay well outside the central power of the colonizers, and yet is unable to self-determine in such a way as to be a successful society. It is not until Mui escapes from the family she serves that she begins to occupy a self-determined space in the world, and even that space takes time for her to create.

As the conflation of out- and indoor settings mirrors Mui’s place in the family, so too does it serve to map Vietnam’s liminal place in the world at the time. Most of the family home is open to the outside, especially to the courtyard. Tran’s long shots highlight this conflation by moving between specific rooms and the courtyard with no interference, and he emphasizes this conflation even further by including outdoor items, such as plants, and indoor items, such as the kitchen or a washing bowl, in both areas. By emphasizing this indeterminacy, Tran reminds the audience that both Mui and Vietnam suffer from having no true agency in the world at this time.

Another reinforcement Tran employs in this extended metaphor is the general quiet of the film. Voice and action are necessarily associated with agency in a reciprocal relationship. In a situation of colonization or servitude, the colonized and the servant have no voice and therefore have no agency. From this perspective, Mui embodies that experience to nearly the end of the film, as she speaks very little and is unable to take action to defend herself against the two sons. Tran emphasizes this situation with quiet, tightly focused shots which detail the environment Mui lives within. These are often close shots of wildlife, sometimes enjoying a freedom Mui does not possess, such as the papaya tree and the frogs. Other times these shots emphasize the colonial metaphor on the two sons, such as when the middle son drips wax on the ants, or when the younger son has a lizard tied to a stick.

Mui eventually receives the opportunity to overturn this state of affairs when she is sent to work for the eldest son’s friend, the pianist. As Vietnam itself was eventually able to assert agency in the world, so does Mui find herself in a position to better her liminal state into a defined role in society. The pianist begins a relationship with her, and teaches her to read, write, and exist as a more active person. Through the course of this, they marry and by the end Mui is pregnant and reading directly to the camera. This shot of her, sitting below the statue of Buddha and looking directly into the eye of the audience, is the first in the film in which she displays this kind of forwardness, a sign of agency. Here, too, her experience mirrors the larger trials of Vietnam, which is eventually able to overcome conflict and form a self-determining government, despite United States’ actions to prevent it.

Works Cited

Tran, Anh Hung, dir. The Scent of Green Papaya. Paris: Lazennec Films, 1993. Video Recording.