In The Scent of Green Papaya, director Tran Anh Hung conjures the layered and impassioned sounds of the Vietnam he left as a child. There is the rain falling meaningfully on ceramic floors. The empty knock of a knife against a green papaya. The sizzle of rice filling an empty jar, extinguishing anxiety, nurturing hope. The graceful cadence of domestic life envelops 10-year-old Mui even as she arrives at the door of a bourgeois Saigon family in the early 1950s to begin her life of servitude. Slowly the family’s rhythms, as well as their disruptions, become an integral part of her own life and desires. The father abandons the family at regular intervals, leaving the mother to sustain the home. Mui learns the rituals of the kitchen, serving the meals, cooking the rice and preparing the green papayas that grow in the garden. All this time, she harbors a secret love for Khuyen, a friend of the eldest son. Ten years later, the family falls on harder times. Mui is sent to work for Khuyen and her duties shed their old meanings.
Tran was born in Vietnam in 1962 and moved to Paris in 1975 with his family. After studying cinematography at the Ecole Lumiere, he made his first short film, an elegant ghost story, La Femme Mariée de Nam Xuong and then, two years later his second short, The Stone of Waiting. The Scent of Green Papaya is his first feature length film.
Lawrence Chua What was your emotional attachment to the story of The Scent of Green Papaya?
Tran Anh Hung What you have to know first of all is that the environment in the movie is not the one that I experienced as a child. My family had much more modest circumstances. On the other hand, what I talk about in the film is what I know: my life with my mother. The emotional charge transferred to the film is a function of my description of women who have led similar lives to my mother.
LC The story is nearly Proustian. What were your intentions when you wrote the screenplay?
TAH I took the story from a literary cliché—a cliché of Vietnamese literature. It’s a simple theme, really: The woman assumes all the familial responsibilities; the husband, on the other hand, is quite idle and lazy, and doesn’t do anything except receive the good things of life. Beyond that, my interest in the film was to create a certain freshness and poetry in daily life. By this means, I wanted to give a rhythm to the movie, a rhythm that I hope represents a certain manner of living in Vietnam, and through that rhythm to reveal the soul of the country.
LC You mentioned that the film is a reflection of certain childhood memories. In the Vietnam you remember, do you think it’s possible that a woman like Mui would be able to transcend her position as a servant, as she does in your film?
TAH It’s something that does pose a real problem in Vietnam. The relationship she has with the musician, Khuyen, would be forbidden. What I wanted to show in this film is not an example, but an exception. Once in a while, something like this would happen in Vietnam, but it would provoke crisis. Khuyen’s father would definitely reject his son because of this relationship. But I don’t describe all that in the film, because my intent was to describe the stages in the life of a woman and her own relationship with servitude.
LC You’ve been quoted as saying, “Love empties servitude of its alienating content.” What do you mean by that?
TAH During the whole first part of the film, I describe the apprenticeship into servitude of a little girl. I show what she’s going to be doing and the gestures she’s going to be going through in her work. That work is a duty. In the whole second part of the film, she’s going through the same gestures, it’s still a duty, but she gets pleasure out of it. That’s the ambiguity in the film.
LC You’ve said that you wanted to keep the French public from feeling nostalgic about Vietnam. What expectations were put upon you, working in the French film industry?
TAH When I made the film, I felt the desires of the French, and at the same time, the desires of those Vietnamese living abroad. I felt they wanted a film that was total and exhaustive on the subject of Vietnam. But from the very beginning, I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do in the film. I wanted to humanize a people. And then, with that base about the Vietnamese people in place, I could build an oeuvre. I felt really alone when I made this film. There is not a body of film work on the subject of Vietnam into which I could place myself, a context in which I could place myself.
As far as nostalgia is concerned, I thought of showing a few French people in the film, dressed in the kinds of clothing that they would have been wearing at that time. But I felt that as soon as the French people saw the film that nostalgia would have been provoked in them. That’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to create an atmosphere that would exist in the present. For them. For everybody.
LC In The Scent of Green Papaya, and your first film, La Femme Marie de Nam Xuong, we hear the sound of airplanes, but we never see the bombs. Were you concerned that the elegance of your films would ultimately contribute to some kind of cultural amnesia that exists in the U.S. and France about Southeast Asia?
TAH What is perhaps necessary to understand is that I cannot adequately convey what I haven’t experienced, what I haven’t lived through. Right now, at least, I am not capable of rendering properly the war and colonialism. In a certain way, I’m really not there to remind people, to remind the French, for instance, that they have raped Vietnamese women; or to remind the Americans that they have burned certain Vietnamese villages. Others can do that, or perhaps I can do that later on in my career. Right now, it’s important to create this base that I mentioned. To give a daily life to a people. And I think that against the backdrop of these people who have now been humanized and have a daily life, one can understand the atrocities all the better. I grew up in France, and yet I wanted people to have at their disposal a body of film about Vietnam. And yet I found that there was no cultural foundation for that heritage. If a Japanese filmmaker wishes to make a film about Japan, he or she has recourse to a ton of people: Ozu, Mizoguchi. I have this problem of a lack of cinematic heritage behind me. I had to make a film that was a departure to something. Fundamentally, I guess you could say that I made a film for nothing: just to create artificially and pretentiously a cinematographic past for myself. Perhaps it only elucidates things for me, but I’m very attached to this idea. Since it’s not really clear to me right now, I hope that by making other films, if I have the opportunity to do so, this idea will clarify itself as I go on. It’s quite possible, I’m not sure, that my next film will be a very violent film. But if you only knew me through that violent film you wouldn’t have a good idea of Vietnam or of me. It would be just as though you only knew Japan through Mishima.
LC You returned to Vietnam to scout for the locations for this film and then you turned around and made the film on a soundstage in France. How did your trip affect the way the film looks now? Were there any narrative changes that you made after the visit to Vietnam?
TAH Not really. This was an extremely mental film, and it gives a mental image of Vietnam. It’s not a documentary. So the only thing I had to do was resist, in a sense, the reality that I discovered because that reality in front of me risked destroying the script that I had written. I had to return, or pull back into a mental state, the indices of reality. It was only by doing this that I managed to produce something that was extremely Vietnamese. As a matter of fact, the Vietnamese were unanimous on this when they saw the film. Both younger and older film people said that they needed a young Vietnamese person living away from Vietnam, to create something that was extremely Vietnamese.
LC Why do you think they said that?
TAH Maybe it was just their way of adopting me, of saying you’re a Vietnamese just like we are. But I find that’s really a curious aspect anyway. Frankly, it disturbs me. Why, when people look at me, are they looking for a Vietnamese specificity? It seems to be that when people look at a Vietnamese film they’re looking for something that is more real than documentary or more documentary than real.
LC What are your strategies working in that kind of an environment?
TAH Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t have any strategies. When I made Green Papaya, I wanted to make a film that had a certain rhythm. My goal was not to excite the spectator, but to impregnate them with a certain kind of rhythm. Now, however, I have the feeling I need to shake people to the bones. I would like to make a film where they go out physically fatigued. I’m looking for ways to have a much more rigorous effect on people. But I can’t really call that a career strategy.
LC The Scent of Green Papaya is a film of small, intimate gestures. What was it like directing young actors in those movements?
TAH That was very complex. First of all, it’s very difficult to find Vietnamese actors. The Vietnamese are, by nature, a gentle people, and also to be an actor is not considered a very good thing. It’s not considered a serious thing, to be in the cinema. Once I found my actors, I had to work with them on a whole system of rediscovery of “typically Vietnamese” gestures. But I couldn’t stop just at that level. After I had worked on getting the children, especially, to have those gestures, I had to go one step further. I had to render those gestures stylized. What I really wanted to avoid was local color. I did the same kind of work on their voices. I had to take into account the situation of the Vietnamese who live in France. Here I am giving them a film which has no local color. They don’t find their Vietnam, specifically, when they go to watch it. And yet, they all admitted that the film was profoundly Vietnamese. I think that’s what explains the success of the film in France. To convey the folkloric side, that’s not my thing. I didn’t want to show how one dances a traditional Vietnamese dance on film. What was important for me was to convey the Vietnamese soul.
LC Could you talk about what you’re working on now?
TAH When I went to Vietnam, people said to me, “What are you feeling being back in the country, being in contact with this?” And what I said to them was, “Nothing. I’m feeling nothing.” Of course, that was false. That’s what I felt would be the subject for the next film. It will be the story of a young 18-year-old cyclopousse driver. I want to present, through the cycles of his life, the difficulty that people have living in Vietnam today: The exhaustion that they have through their work; the fascination, on the other hand, that they have with the dollar and the presence of Americans, in spite of the embargo. That’s going to be the social thematic of the film. However, the intimate theme of the film will be the relationship that this young man has with his father. There are an enormous number of things that I want to put into the film. The difficulty in this film is going to be making it coherent.
LC The uniform response I’ve heard from Asian audiences here in New York to your film is that Mui’s relationship with the young man was completely unbelievable. No servant could ever transcend class like that.
TAH Are they calling that inauthentic?
LC Yeah. They’re looking to the film to represent some reality they miss.
TAH That’s true. It’s a big problem of reflection. As a matter of fact, when people are living abroad, they believe that the rules they left in that country are reality. This is not the case. Reality, in fact, is made up of transgressions of rules. For example, Vietnamese people are brought up to believe that there is no such thing as people passing from one social class to the next. When people leave the country, they say, it doesn’t exist. However, if you look at reality in Vietnam or elsewhere, it does exist. You hear inside the country, that a scandal is going on because so-and-so, the son of a rich person, has fallen in love with a poor girl from another class, and it causes a family crisis, and there are all these problems. These are realities. And yet, once people go abroad, they say these realities don’t exist, only the rules exist.