Sometime in 1990, when I was still new here in Winnipeg, this Asian guy at the bus stop approached me. I was then on my way to my part-time job at McDonalds. We were the only ones on that particular bus stop. He seemed harmless and I didn’t get nervous when he started talking to me in a different language. I told him, “I’m sorry, what did you say?” Realizing that I was not from where he was, he said, “I thought you were Vietnamese.” I said, “No, I’m not.” At that time, I thought, well, I am Asian and I must have similar features with other Asians like the Vietnamese.
A few years later, I was at a local Vietnamese store when a lady started talking to me in that foreign language once again. She mistook me for a Vietnamese. I politely said that I was not.
Vietnamese and Filipinos do have striking physical resemblances. And I learned that there are more similarities than that when I saw Tran Anh Hung’s The Scent of Green Papaya, Winner Camera D’Or 1993 Cannes Film Festival. This movie was set in 1951 Saigon, Vietnam.
Mui (Lu Man San) is only 10 years old when she leaves her family to take up residence as a servant-in-training. Hired by a merchant family, she is the victim of the son’s torment and a witness to both the father’s strange disappearances and the mother’s misery over her lost daughter. Yet Mui takes to her job with an almost spiritual devotion. She performs the most ordinary tasks with a delicate grace. The family’s old servant woman, Thi, teaches her how to prepare food – especially the green papaya which, when ripe is considered a fruit, but when green, is a vegetable.
Ten years later, Mui has grown into a radiant, graceful woman. Dismissed by the merchant family, she is sent to work for Khuyen, a wealthy composer, for whom she harbors a secret passion. Now under Khuyen’s roof, Mui’s service becomes mingled with love. Their seduction of each other begins with slight touches and chance encounters until little by little, they become indispensable to each other.
I enjoyed watching The Scent of Green Papaya because I can relate very well to the people, the scenes and the culture. They are very similar to those of the Philippines. Rice is also their staple food and we cook our ulam very much alike. They also use mosquito nets at night. And that servant thing reminded me of the house helpers we had back home.
The young Mui was very cute and graceful. The Scent of Green Papaya is subtitled but it won’t bother the viewer that much because there weren’t a lot of dialogues anyway. Told from Mui’s point of view, I think it focuses more on her observations of life. I loved that scene when she was watching the sap drop from the papaya stem, that one when she was studying the papaya seeds, and that one when she was watching the ants carry their heavy loads. And I also liked that the seduction was shown very subtly. It was very artistic, no vulgarity.
The Scent of Green Papaya is “a wonderful and touching story critically acclaimed around the world.”