Which is not to say that the film isn't nice to look at; it is. The theme is the wondrousness an observant person can find in the mundane world of domestic objects and familiar nature, things like papaya seeds and lizards. But the images we're shown are beautiful not because the filmmaking is great, but simply because lizards and papaya seeds are beautiful, and director Tran Anh Hung stops to take a good, long look at them. Giving us a good look, at anything, is, of course, commendable--not enough filmmakers are willing to do it--but it isn't enough by itself, not in a narrative movie, at least.
The narrative of Green Papaya concerns Mui, a rural woman who comes to live and work as a servant in a Saigon household. The first half of the film begins in 1951, when Mui is 10, on the evening that she arrives at the house. The second half begins in 1961, on the day she leaves it for a new job.
The man and woman she serves at house one are businesspeople who have a small dry goods store. There are three sons, two of them young--the youngest delights in tormenting Mui--but this doesn't make the house joyful, as the parents are haunted by the death of their young daughter. There's also a reclusive grandmother who spends all her time praying, out of grief. For psychologically obvious reasons, and also because she's a sweet kid, Mui instantly becomes the favorite of the mother (hence the younger son's hostility).
Mui doesn't try to take advantage of her favored status, however. She's the platonic ideal of the good servant: She works constantly, she's deferential, she smiles, she never speaks to her employers. It's clear that she's utterly fulfilled by her work. Her only hobby is a little cage of crickets she keeps on her sill as pets. This attitude stands her in good stead when, as a beautiful 20-year-old, she goes to work in the home of an attractive, apparently successful young composer. She skulks wordlessly about his house, bringing him plates of delicious-looking food. At first he barely notices her, but pretty soon she starts looking better to him than his flashy, talkative girlfriend. The final section of the film actually has a bit of Pygmalion action, as the composer teaches Mui to read. Her out-loud readings of her lessons constitute, I think, the only words we ever hear the adult Mui speak.
Superficially, the plot isn't very edifying--the point of it all seems to be, "Be a good drudge and keep your mouth shut, and sooner or later the right guy will notice you." We're meant to see, though, that domestic work isn't drudgery to Mui. Like Saint Teresa of Avila, she is mystically transported by housework, by cooking or watching ants struggle with oversize burdens. That there is a Zen overtone for her in all this is suggested overtly when we see her peeling a papaya and gazing at its innards reverently, while from upstairs we can hear the sound of the grandmother's prayer drum.
But the plot barely matters. Tran is far more concerned with atmosphere than with drama. He's by no means without skill--the pace is deliberate, but it isn't crushingly slow, and he gets strong work out of Lu Man San, the girl who plays the 10-year-old Mui. Her face really does seem lighted up with spiritual rapture that isn't matched by Tran Nu Yàn-Khà, Mui at 20, who comes across as a smiling, submissive simp.
So Tran clearly got what he wanted on-screen--a film so hypnotic that it gets the audience, at least intermittently, in tune with Mui's perceptions, that allows us to actually smell the green papayas. But he doesn't reveal the character to us. We never get to know her as anyone more than a flawless, happy, pretty housekeeper, a Zen Donna Reed minus the humor.
No doubt there are plenty of people who respond to housework as Mui does, but just seeing through Mui's eyes doesn't explain why she can see what most of the rest of us can't. After a while, watching the movie became not unlike a household chore. All right, I smell it, I wanted to say, I smell the lousy papaya. Will that be all?