New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

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Off the Radar: Redefining national images in ‘The Scent of Green Papaya’

Off the Radar is a weekly column surveying overlooked films available to students for free via NYU’s streaming partnerships. “The Scent of Green Papaya” is available to stream on Kanopy.
A+red+mug+and+a+laptop+with+an+image+of+a+young+girl+looking+over+a+fence+drawn+on+a+purple+background.
Kennon Cummings
“The Scent of Green Papaya” is available through NYU’s streaming partners. (Illustration by Kennon Cummings)

Having fled Vietnam and immigrated to France at the age of 12, Trần Anh Hung has established himself as a singular filmmaker in world cinema — a master in producing fleeting moments of intimacy. With the release of his latest film, “Taste of Things,” a sensual love letter to French gastronomy, there is no better time to revisit Trần’s 1993 debut feature “The Scent of Green Papaya.” A triumph of postcolonial cinema, it is a seminal entry into the canon of modern Vietnamese-language cinema and a moving picture of a bygone era.

“The Scent of Green Papaya” is set in Saigon during the 1950s. The viewer observes the daily routine of ten-year-old servant girl Muì (Man San Lu). Working for a declining upper-middle-class family, one mired in domestic turmoil, Muì spends her days cooking meals and sweeping the floors. A decade later, with the family reduced to a shell of its former self, an older Muì (Trần Nữ Yên Khê) leaves to work in the household of a wealthy, French-educated concert pianist Khuyen (Vuong Hòa Hôi). In many ways the film is the ultimate exercise of nostalgic reclamation, yet Trần’s narrative is not only concerned with recreating imagined memories of Vietnam’s past, but also with highlighting gender dynamics under the colonial patriarchy.

This is a film told through its women. Whether it is Man’s performance as the young and naive Muì or Thi Loc Truong’s portrayal as the matriarch, Trần paints the feminine experience as one defined by unfettered resilience in “The Scent of Green Papaya.” In an interview with BOMB Magazine, he said the film’s premise was based on a classic Vietnamese literary cliche, where the woman “assumes all the familial responsibilities” while the husbands are often “quite idle and lazy.” Trần communicates an immense cultural burden placed on Vietnamese women: maternal responsibility is one that takes a traumatic toll on the individual.

Trần captures his homeland in a way never before seen by Western audiences. Even if so many years have passed since the last American troops retreated from Saigon, the specter of Hollywood still looms large over a cultural memory of Indochina; images of military helicopters wreaking havoc on a tropical backwater set ablaze pervade global perceptions of Vietnam. Despite finally shaking off the yoke of colonial power, the nation’s image is still painted by the white man’s brush.

Along with cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, Trần frees his cameras from the expectations set by American cinema. Instead, he focuses his lens on the muted moments of city life. Shot entirely on a sound stage in France, steady, one-shot takes gently drift through tight street markets and quiet bedrooms. Trần doesn’t care for the spectacle of destruction, rather he is intimately concerned with the tragic beauty of the banal.

In this subtle drama of domestic relationships, the cinematic medium quietly defies foreign-imposed images of destitution, replacing this reductive veneer with poetic elegance.

Contact Mick Gaw at [email protected].

About the Contributor
Mick Gaw, Film & TV Editor
Mick Gaw is a junior double-majoring in History and Public Policy. When he’s not holed up in a cinema, he's probably perusing the aisles of an Asian grocery store, wandering around museums or taking ugly pictures of his meals. You can find him on Instagram as @gawmick and occasionally on Letterboxd as @micks_canon.
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