If there ever was beauty in the stillness of life’s mellow progress though most of our lives, it has been captured liltingly well in this movie set around the mid-twentieth century in Saigon, Vietnam but shot entirely on a sound stage in Paris. It’s a remarkable movie-watching experience. There is hardly anything of specific note which happens, and yet from the first scene, of a young peasant girl arriving after a day’s walk from her village to her new employer’s home, we are hooked, almost entranced. This is a beautifully observed little slice of life film which, just like its protagonist, finds immense joy in the simple pleasures of life. Nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar back in 1994 (a pretty strong year for the category), it is one of those timeless watches which ages resoundingly well. The movie also won the Camera D’Or at Cannes in 1993 and, since it was a French production, a Cesar award in 1994 (the prizes for best first feature by a director), for its maker Anh Hung Tran.
The movie opens on a dimly lit up street after dusk has fallen. A girl, Mui, has walked all day from her village to come to her new place of work and stay. The lady of the house welcomes her warmly and shows her to her place of rest. This is not a movie which focuses on the girl’s hardships, though it’s obvious there would be plenty of those. This movie rather focuses on the little pleasures and beauties of her life as a servant girl over the years in two different households. On the surface of it, providing a synopsis of the film may do it a disservice, for it may appear unbearably boring to the uninitiated. But the whole point of the film is not in its plot, but in the gentle ripples and swaying rhythms it creates in the characters’ lives and the surroundings. Yes, there are events happening in the employers’ household. The mother is a caring, practical lady who has to take care of three children, an old granny and a quiet but fickle husband who is a bit of a man child himself. They had a daughter who died when she was around the same age as Mui. Prior to that the husband had the irritating and unreliable practice of vanishing for periods of time with the family’s saved up money and jewels and returning when the stock dwindled. However, he has been at home since and yet after Mui’s arrival, vanishes soon after again leaving the mother in a financially prickly situation. The elder son is a young man and comes home with a friend of his, Khuyen, for dinner at times. Mui has an unobtrusive, quiet attraction for this young man from the off and this gets cemented when years later and as a comely young woman herself, she moves to his household to work there (owing to the strained finances of the erstwhile family she was living with). This new household is usually populated only by Khuyen, who is a classical piano player and musician and of a subtle urbane sophistication in his demeanor. He is frequently visited by his more ebullient fiancé, a woman of high society, who tries to elicit more from him than the usual distant affection but rarely succeeds. Towards the end of the film though, the circumstances in the relationships of these three people have changed. A lovely montage which slowly takes hold of the screen is one in which Khuyen patiently teaches Mui her letters and her wonder at the power of the words she hadn’t yet had occasion to peruse in her life.
There is such unadorned warmth and caress in the movement of the camera through the quiet frames and domestic vistas that one is pulled in effortlessly into this young girl’s life. There is a vibe of contented acceptance with her lot that one gets from here, and yet this does not seem to be limiting in any way to her. The film is a subtle testament to how quiet dignity and commitment to one’s responsibilities can lead to a good life even when it isn’t immediately apparent. Mui revels quietly in the simple sights, sounds and smells of nature’s abundance around her. The ants making their hardworking way through their little lives excite her, as does the presence of the green papaya all around the courtyard. The name of the movie is apt considering how the fruit is an ever prevalent in the household, both outside and for the palette of the denizens. But even more so in how it captures the pleasure of the narrative that unfolds. For this is truly a sensory, sensual experience which could pass by the less than discerning viewer. But for the watchers ready to let their senses take hold and lead them on, this could be a very pleasant and fruitful journey.