The film begins in the 1950s when a 10-year-old orphan girl named Mui arrives in a wealthy Saigon house to work as a servant, a place filled with sadness following the death of a daughter the same age as Miu. As she dutifully cares for her masters, Mui communes effortlessly with the natural forces around her, finding refuge in the birds and insects that become essential parts of her serene world. Growing into a beautiful, graceful 20-year-old, Mui becomes a devoted servant to the handsome musician she has admired since girlhood, and is soon drawn into his forbidden world as the Vietnam War approaches.

4
A fragrant, sensual story.

Marking the striking feature film debut of 30-year-old Vietnamese-born writer-director Tran Anh Hung, The Scent of Green Papaya is a seductive drama set in Colonial Vietnam.

This richly evocative work was nominated for best foreign language film at the 1993 Oscars – not for cinematography as stated on the DVD sleeve; it also won the Camera d'Or at Cannes, the prize for a first-time film.

It opens in Saigon in 1951 as 10-year-old Mui (Lu Man San) is employed as a servant for a middle class family. The family is still mourning the death seven years earlier of their daughter, who would have been the same age as Mui. Under the tutelage of older servant Thi (Nguyen Anh Hoa), Mui learns the domestic routine and the family’s sad history, including the feckless father’s habit of going missing, taking all their money, and the grandmother’s refusal to leave her room upstairs since her granddaughter died. Mui is treated kindly, almost as a surrogate daughter, by the hardworking, stoic mother (Truong Thi Loc).

Mui slowly develops a crush on the handsome Khuyen (Vuong Hoa Hoi), a friend of the eldest son Trung (Souvannavong Keo). The gently-unfolding narrative lacks dramatic power but there is plenty of underlying tension, especially when the father shoots through again.

The story then fast-forwards 10 years as Mui (Tran Nu Yen-Khe), now a graceful beauty, leaves the house to work as a servant to Khuyen, a gifted pianist who spends most of his time at his Steinway. The major intrigue now is whether a romance will develop, despite the fact that Khuyen is engaged and he barely talks to Mui.

The dialogue is sparse as Hung relies on lingering close-ups of faces, lips, insects, flowers and food, plus a stunning score to create a beguiling atmosphere and flesh out the characters and their relationships. The era of a bygone Vietnam is brilliantly re-created in the rambling house and garden, Khuyen’s mansion and street, all filmed in a studio outside Paris. References to a curfew and the occasional sound of overhead aircraft are the only hints of an outside world. The title refers to a childhood memory of the director and serves as a metaphor, for both Mui and fruit blossom as the film unfolds. Minimal extras comprise eight scenes and trailers for four Umbrella releases.