STOP10: Seeking constancy in 'The Scent of the Green Papaya'

With his elaborate soundstage set of pre-war Vietnam, Tran Anh Hung guides us back into a time and place where serenity pulses with unease. Amidst soaking us in lush greens and rich sounds of crickets and leaves in the breeze, the regular curfew sirens, the roar of planes over head and the shrill of a flute in minor keys tell us that times are not untroubled as we enter a household together with Mui, the young servant.

From her first day, Mui navigates the workings of her middle-class employers with quiet curiousity, while her newfound presence soothes the aching heart of the family’s mother, as Mui’s bright eyes remind her of her own late daughter. In time, Mui’s tranquil presence weaves itself into the lives of those around her. Even as the family slips into increased instability, her work never ceases as she cares for the family’s young and old.

Years later, the mother is forced to send Mui to Khuyen, a friend of the household’s eldest son. While this decision is in part because of the family’s finances, her role as Mui’s unspoken maternal figure also appears as a factor. While it clearly hurts her, the knowledge of Mui’s affection for Khuyen and the hope that Khuyen might accept Mui as family pushes her to send Mui away, as she gifts Mui with a simple dowry to pack with her belongings. As Mui begins life in Khuyen’s home, just as she did before, she now begins weaving her presence into his life through her work, tending to Khuyen and his belongings with gentleness.

In the dowry is a bright red dress that Mui tries on when she thinks Khuyen and his fiancé are not home. As she checks her reflection while applying the fiancé’s lipstick, we are reminded of an earlier moment, when a young Mui carefully buttoned her red top and checks her reflection in still waters before rushing to bring dinner to the family’s table when Khuyen was a guest, eagerly hoping to be sighted by him. Now as she cheerfully paints colour on her lips, she spots Khuyen, and runs to hide in her own safe space. In this moment, the role between “Master” and “Servant” are apparent, as Khuyen steps into her living area without reservation. From here on, the film leaps into a flurry of important moments, his apparent disdain for his fiancé, him stepping into her room, his fiancé’s outrage, until finally we slow down, and we finally see them together as Khuyen teaches her how to read and speak.

Now, for the first time, we hear the voice of the adult Mui confident and clear as she recites a poem, of which there is a line:

But the interesting thing is that…
however much they change,
they still resemble cherry trees.

If a cherry tree can continue to be a cherry tree amidst waves that sway it, then perhaps it has found its own place to live and bear fruit. In Mui’s different reflections, we see that in her ways, she has weaved her place in the hearts of those around her that go beyond her work. Throughout the serenity that pulses with unease, Mui’s tranquillity brings me a quiet comfort.

Check out which other films made our list of the 10 Most Life-Changing Southeast Asian films.

Written by Priscilla Liew

Priscilla Liew dreams of sushi and working for cinema. She is in love with film and is more than okay to talk about it.
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