MOST fine films are remembered as a series of fragments or scenes, a close-up of a great actor here, a breathtaking view of the landscape there. But a few films are recalled as a whole work -
almost like a painting - a complete expression of feeling taken at once. The pieces of action remembered are like details of a painting, rather than chapters of a book. ``The Scent of Green Papaya,'' by Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, like an open lily, is grasped as a whole and remembered as a single emotional experience.
It is a beautiful little film - not too expensively made, no special effects, no complex characterization, and absolutely no high drama. Sometimes the acting seems awkward: All the actors are amateurs. Yet something of the director's cultural and individual aesthetics emerges unmistakably. ``The Scent of Green Papaya'' leaps the cultural gap, sharing with us a particular vision of art and of life that is somewhat different from our own. It is that difference, that modest window into another culture, that paradoxically helps us understand our common humanity.
Mui, a girl aged nine or 10, comes to a Vietnamese city from the country to be a servant in a middle-class merchant's household. The father of the household lives an idle life. The long-suffering wife runs the household, cares for and comforts her three sons, and runs the family business. Having lost a young daughter, the wife is very kind to her new servant. An older son is merely indifferent; a younger son torments Mui. Eventually the father leaves, taking all the family's money and jewels with him, only to return near death months later.
Mui grows up and, much to the grief of the wife who now loves her like a daughter, is sent to serve a friend of the family, a young composer. For the first time in Mui's life, the work she does gives her intense joy, because she has fallen in love with her employer. He teaches her to read. And later, the simple, sweet ending confers meaning on the whole film.
``Papaya'' was Vietnam's submission for this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture, even though there is really no film industry in Vietnam. Director Tran, who left Vietnam at the age of 12 to live in France, returned to his country of origin to make his first feature film. Because Vietnam had changed so much and because there was no support industry there, he decided to shoot the film on a sound stage in France with amateur Vietnamese actors.
I met Mr. Tran at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. We talked about how the film was made, what he hoped to achieve in it, and what it might mean to Western viewers. He does not speak English, so we spoke through a French interpreter.
``[`Papaya'] is precisely a mental work,'' he says. ``I didn't try to make a documentary. I wanted to make a mental landscape, and that mental landscape would be the Vietnam of my memory and, precisely, my relationship with my mother. What I mean is, in Vietnam itself, the setting has been so transformed; the density of population has changed everything.
``Instead of one family inhabiting that house [as pictured in the film], there might be five families. So what I had to do, in fact, was to go back and see Vietnam as it is, and then remove from my mind all that had been added - to purify it and find the house as it might have been in the '50s. But all the details, the decor, and so on, are not what is important. What is important is that the feeling had to be exact, authentic emotion.''
He was recreating his own feeling about growing up in Vietnam. But he was also, he says, trying somehow to recreate feelings inspired by his mother, whom he admires. He was not trying to make a portrait of his mother, or to represent her in any of the characters, because then the story would have been merely anecdotal. The two principal women are very good human beings, selfless, hard-working, kind, and bright. They create an atmosphere of the feminine - a feeling for how life was for women of their time and situation.
TO achieve his distinctive style - that quality of unity, a single impression or emotion achieved - Tran works with actors the way the great French director Robert Bresson and the equally great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu did.
``Hitchcock worked on the mechanical aspect of the actor, as did Ozu,'' says Tran. ``That's what I like. What has had an influence on me is the extremely stylized acting by the actors who worked with Ozu, Bresson, and Hitchcock. Those actors leave an impression on me. On the other hand, those actors who are very expressive, who improvise a lot, who are generous in their movements may touch me at the moment while I am watching the film, but that kind of performance does not stay with me; I forget it. But a face that is immobile, that is restrained - that leaves an impression on me.''
``Papaya'' is crowded with subtle ethnographic data, from little Mui learning to cook, squatting near the kitchen fire, to the way the wife conducts business in her shop, to the influence of French culture on Vietnamese life: The composer plays Debussy, and his fiancee wears Paris chic and behaves like the heroine of a '50s French film. But all this ethnographic detail is orchestrated as daily life, as the quiet events of Mui's experience - all that she observes.
Tran explains that while Mui sees all the action of the film, she is not a particularly conscious person. He compares her to the heroine of a story by Flaubert called ``The Simple Heart.'' What Tran's Mui has in common with Flaubert's servant is ``extreme goodness,'' he says.
``As a child, Mui has been asked to do a job and she just does it. She quickly internalizes it,'' he says. ``I wanted to show in my portrait of Mui a person who is instinctive, not reflective. Extreme goodness does not have to be conscious. It just is.'' Part of Mui's goodness is reflected in her love of nature, in the wonder she experiences as a child and then as a woman. And another part of her goodness is expressed in her serenity.
The composer begins to observe Mui when his fiancee, a young woman of his own class, becomes jealous of her. Gradually he becomes aware of her presence, and he sees her sweetness in the face of a sculpture - the face of a smiling Buddha.
Tran explained that because of the difference in class between the two, the composer might never have noticed her. The sculpture helps awaken him to her presence simply because she resembles it.
Mui is not only the protagonist of the film; she is the witness to all the action. The whole world of ``Papaya'' runs on the activities of the women, and, in fact, all we ever learn about the men comes from watching the reactions of the women.
The wife weeps when her husband leaves her. Her mother-in-law blames her, though she is obviously undeserving of blame: We know what the husband is. We know about the composer's changing feelings toward Mui through his fiancs rage and Mui's modest glances as she feels his affection growing.
``It was a completely conscious choice that we only know what is happening to the man by looking at the faces of the women,'' says Tran. ``That's what I wanted to show - that in spite of submission and servitude, it is really the woman who governs everything. All the man does is receive. He is passive.'' Of course, the paradox lies in the fact that the society is a patriarchy. And so we are left with ambiguity; this is no simple moral lesson, but a reflection of a whole cultural viewpoint.
Love empties servitude of its servile character, Tran says.
The film's aesthetic becomes clear only with the last scene, when we realize the fullness of this simple story. Mui sits in a chair, pregnant and smiling - and the camera pans up to another sculpture, smiling just as the Buddha had, above the composer's young wife.
Looking back over the film, I thought about the little girl and how she grew and changed to reach her present position. And I saw a Cinderella tale - but instead of a wicked stepmother, I saw a kind mistress; instead of a wicked stepsister, a naughty little boy who torments Mui. There is no magic, except the natural, gentle goodness of Mui's character. The emotional journey of the film arrives at serenity, and to see Mui serene is to recall the progression of her life.
``[That] is exactly what the Asian looks for in aesthetics or in philosophy of life,'' says Tran. ``To depict something that is extremely serene on the surface but which has - like under a mountain - seismic shocks, which are very small and which you cannot see with the eye. The serenity of the mountain is not disturbed by these small seismic shocks. And yet ultimately, they do have an effect on the whole. To come back to the emotional journey, at the end you go to the beginning and you see that journey. This is what I hoped people would do.''
Some Vietnamese viewers have criticized the story as improbable, because ``that situation is forbidden,'' says Tran. ``People might ask, is it a typical thing in Vietnam that when you have a master and a servant, that some kind of love relationship might develop? Well no, but it happens. Just because a situation is forbidden, doesn't mean these things don't occur.''
There are other cultural details Westerners might not grasp at once, like the homage the wife pays her dead husband even though he betrayed her. Yet, the essential poetry of the film, despite a very slow pace Americans are not used to, does leap the culture gap.
``I think that is the whole intent in making a film, that it can reach out and touch others,'' says Tran. ``A film has to have that quality. If the interest of the film is merely local or national, it doesn't make it, it's not interesting.''