‘The Scent of Green Papaya’ and the Western Gaze.

A thought that I couldn’t shake from my head is that The Scent of Green Papaya is the Asian equivalent of Roma, albeit it came much earlier in 1993. I only make this comparison because I suppose Roma is more widely known. It follows the life of Mui, a young Vietnamese servant girl, who spends her earlier years in two different Saigon families. Very similar to films like The Florida Project and Roma as well, it was an attitude of a place in a particular era. I thoroughly enjoyed this culture study, however, it doesn’t come without controversy.

A large part of the controversy comes from the fact that the film is extremely polished, with very high production value, perhaps utilizing “Western” cinematic language, plagued by the “western gaze.” The fact that the film was entirely shot on a built set contributes to this idea of artificiality rather than authenticity. Likely to a native Vietnamese audience, it doesn’t portray the nation they know as home. Films like When The Tenth Month Comes is much more preferred, for its authenticity.

But on the other hand, I suppose I’m interested in whether not adapting a film from its authentic sociopolitical background is such a terrible thing all the time. Evidently, there are definitely case studies when this has gone wrong, and cultural appropriation is not something we want to see in films, which is why Disney’s Mulan and Aladdin animation features come off as offensive to some. But with a touch of sensitivity, which The Scent of Green Papaya most definitely has, “westernizing” a film can allow it to reach a broader audience and preserve a local shared identity or memory among the wider global community.

Despite the time period overlapping with the Vietnamese war, which is likely a Western audience’s primary connection with Vietnam, the film preserves an unscarred, untouched version of the nation for the Western audience. It delicately works in traditional Vietnamese details like the traditional values: a tendency to repress emotions, the social hierarchy, servitude, attitude towards sex, and the process of modernization, to name a few. For people like my parents, or in fact, anyone who doesn’t have extensive involvement in film, it’s more than likely that films like The Scent of Green Papaya would be the only connection to Vietnamese culture and history. I’m tempted to drag in Crazy Rich Asians, which even though is a bit exaggerated and underrepresents a portion of the Singaporean demographic, it was able to take a step in the right direction and showcase the multifacetedness of Asian identity. On the contrary, the common depiction is the usual two dimensional and stereotypical approach that many Hollywood productions have, generalizing the multitude of Asian culture.

Beyond the politics behind this film, the execution was pretty much flawless. The acting drove this film — both the younger and older Mui were able to portray the character’s unique observation skills and her hybrid identity in the families, as both a servant but also seen as an honorary member of the family. The cinematography was visually gripping, with the “shot within shots” adding an element of voyeurism, giving the audience a “fly on the wall” point of view, which works exceptionally well with the ultra-wide-angle shots. Evidently, as a result, the audience would have to put in a lot more effort to actively engage with the film in order to understand some parts of it. The film language does not passively feed the important and necessary scenes to the audience, rather it is hidden among the layers of beautiful shots. This sometimes makes it difficult to navigate the film if it doesn’t have 100% of your attention or if you don’t already have some contextual knowledge of the film and region. In a review of this film, I was informed of its strong Buddhist theme that lies within, which I missed entirely on my first watch through — Mui can be seen as the Enlightened One, as “she lives totally in the here and now, and sees and appreciates everything,” while enriching the lives of those around her. I think this goes to show the complexity in the seemingly simple and innocent package that it was delivered in.

So while I remain cautious of films that misrepresent and understand the epistemic risk that they take, I’m still supportive of films that walk along this fine line, and I am interested to see more of these films in the future.

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