Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Scent of the Green Papaya

Directed by Tran Anh Hung
France/Vietnam, 1993

Relying more on tone and feel rather than on plot, and focusing more on moments than characters, “The Scent of Green Papaya” shows a glimpse of life in Vietnam prior to the country being torn by war and revolution. It captures astonishingly the grace and beauty of a bygone era.

“The Scent of Green Papaya” is a simple tale of two periods in the life of a peasant Vietnamese girl named Mui (Lu Man San at the age of 10; Tran Nu Yen-Khe, the director's real-life fiancée at age of 20). The first section takes place in 1951 and shows Mui, a young, poor Vietnamese country girl as she leaves her family (whom we never see), and arrives at the troubled house of well- off merchant family in Saigon, where she will spend the next ten years of her life working as a servant. As Mui grows and the family's fortunes fade. In 1961, the 20-year-old Mui is still content working in same household, but due family's financial problems, they have to release her from the service, and she ends up working for Khuyen, bourgeois pianist and composer, long time family friend, whom she has secretly adored since childhood. She has known this man ever since they both were children. He was the playmate of her employer's son.
Now, sophisticated Francophile and Western-thinker, he and Mui find themselves engaged in a mutual seduction. With only the minimum of dialogue, this classic Cinderella-like story is a sensual, visually delicious film.

The early scenes show Mui’s introduction to new place, as she learns to cook and perform her chores, and as the youngest son of her new employer's besets her. Mui’s character remains relatively mute as she observes the world around her. Through her eyes, we witness the day-to-day activities of the household and understand the way it works. Mui is teached to perform her duties by the old servant, who carefully shows her how to prepare the papaya (traditionally woman's work) and answers all the child's curious questions about the household. Her life are centered on the kitchen, and a vegetable garden.The child will serve the meals, clean the house, wash the clothes, and run errands. While Mui adapts effortlessly to her responsibilities, doing her chores in an unobtrusive manner, the merchant family doesn't do so well. Early on, she learns that her new masters have lost the only daughter named Tó, who would have been just about Mui's age, so over the time, the mother becomes especially fond of her, as Mui becomes like a daughter for her. The mother, perpetually bereaved, runs the family textile business and silently suffers abandonment. The father, a self-centered man of dubious integrity, has a history of womanizing and disappearing for long periods with all his family's savings. That provokes two youngest sons to act out their anger and behave unruly. Mourning grandmother never leaves her upstairs bedroom/prayer altar and blames the the women, her son wife, for his absences. Yet all this unhappiness and impoverishment is beneath the surface, hidden from direct view.

The film is about everyday spirituality from an Eastern perspective. Mui, as a young girl, has learned the art of stopping the world. For her, there is beauty in the smallest details. She savours the sunlight through the green leaves outside the window, the scent of green papaya, the drop of water trembling on a leaf and looks with wonder at ants carrying a heavy load. From a gentle, grandfatherly neighbour she learned the ability to love from a distance. Mui is a sweet girl with a radiant smile, someone who finds satisfaction in life, even working as a poor servant.

It's a stunning first feature, even though it moves very very slowly and the acting is uneven. The second part of the film pales in comparison to part one, and that is because the innocent and cute Mui as a child is the glue that holds the film together and make it so special. The older Mui isn't as impressive, she doesn't radiate the same warmth on the screen. Tran Nu Yen-Khe's body language seems odd and inappropriate to the circumstances. The use of sound effects is excellent, in a film with so little dialogue, music and sound effects become critical contributors. What “The Scent of Green Papaya” does so well is showing the lost Vietnam, peaceful and orderly place not yet touched by wartime and everyday life of a traditional culture that, has been bombed into history. Ironically, “The Scent of Green Papaya” was filmed entirely on a sound stage in Paris. Everything we see is a set. The director, Anh Hung Tran (born in Vietnam but relocated and educated in France) undoubtedly found it impossible to make a film of this type in today's Vietnam, which is hardly nostalgic for the colonial era. "The Scent of Green Papaya" is a quiet, sensuous, apolitical, slow-paced film which makes it a point to clearly detail the everyday existence in the Vietnam that no longer exists, if ever existed at all...

Sunday, 20 February 2011


Directed by Majid Majidi
Iran 2001

Iranian screenwriter-director Majid Majidi is best known for his 1998 feature debut, “Children of Heaven”, that became the first Iranian film to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. "Baran" is just as beautiful.

The movie deals with Afghani refugees in Iran. It's 2001 and large number of them is living on the outskirts of Tehran due to the war with Russia and then the oppressive Taliban's regime. Most of Afghan men are working illegally at the construction sites, obviously for far less wages than the Iranian workers. A building site is an unusual location for a love story but here it is - the story of Lateef and his silent romantic interests in an Afghan refugee.

Lateef (Hossein Abedini), the young Azeri Iranian, is having an easy time at the construction site with the job of serving tea and preparing food for other workers. The workers come from all parts of Iran, many of them are refugees from war torn Afghanistan. They have no identity card and are employed illegally as cheap labor. When the labour inspectors show up, the Afghan workers must hide. Day after Najaf, one of illegal Afghan workers falls from the building and is seriously injured, appears his adolescent son – Rahmat (Hossein Abedini). He was send to fill in, since his father is unable to work with a broken leg and he has many children to take care of. Rahmat is small and weak, unable to do heavy manual work at the construction site. He's constantly dropping the heavy loads of concrete, which never seem to end up anywhere. Eventually, the contractor, Memar switches the boys, putting Rahmat on kitchen duty and forcing the infuriated Lateef to take up the heavy lifting. Lateef is sore about losing his comfy job and continuously torments Rahmat. He does everything in his power to sabotage his rival until the day when, after one of his pranks, he learns by accident that Rahmat is actually a girl. Latif's heart softens, he's really sorry about his early acts and starts to be very protective gradually falls in love with Rahmat.. He's doing what he can to ease the hardships the girl suffers at work and is trying to save her from the inspectors. One day, however, during a surprise visit of the labour inspectors, they find themselves face to face with Rahmat. She panics and runs away as they chase her through the city streets. Lateef runs after them, struggles with the inspectors, allowing Rahmat to flee. After this accident the government inspectors force Memar to fire all Afghans from the site. Lateef takes a leave and spends some time tracking the girl down. Eventually he find out where she stays and spies her from afar while she's working in harsh conditions, pulling large rocks from and icy cold river. He becomes increasingly fascinated by the immigrant's life and history, also learning her real name – Baran (apparently “rain” in Persian).

Many would assume the principal subject of the film would be the female protagonist Baran. But the film turns out to be a tale about the man who falls in love with Baran rather than about Baran herself. It traces the gradual change in the male character Lateef before and after falling in love with the girl and his maturing into one that cares more for others less fortunate than himself. He gives away all his accumulated salaries and in the end he even sells his most valued possession, the ID-card, to give Rahamat's family enough money to go back to Afghanistan. Majidi does not tell his story through plot and dialogue as much as by simply observing the behaviour of his characters and through stark, yet beautiful images. Baran is almost a silent movie: woman lead actor does not speak a word throughout entire movie. It's so quite and understated, yet leaves such an impact.

Baran is a love story but for me it runs in the background. It's better to forget about obvious love tale and concentrate on details, perfectly crafted, that tell another, perhaps more interesting story, helping to understand world history better - Soviet Union's attack on Afghanistan and the life of Afghans after the invasion was over. It also shows the ethnic differences within the Iranian population and Teheran itself as the mosaic of ethnicity. The construction site brings the different ethnicities together. The Persian Iranians play the Inspectors, the Azeris bond together and take care of each other, the Kurds and the Lurs are easily provoked to fight the Azeris, while the poor Afghans, without identity papers, toil away for a fraction of what the others earn always fearing deportation if spotted by the Persian Iranian inspectors. The official website of Baran explains the details.

Baran is indeed a powerful story of unselfish love. Lateef took a desperate measures to get money, only to learn that thanks to this, Najaf and his family will returning to Afghanistan and most probably he will never see Baran again. Although Majidi made "Baran" before the terrible events of autumn 2001, the movie is uncannily well-timed. This is also why the end is so incredibly disturbing. In a way it's a positive thing that Baran and her family can return to their homeland, especially that in Iran they were always a second class citizens, hardly allowed to leave the refugee's camps. On the other hand something about seeing the girl as she's about to leave Iran, fully covering herself with burkha (a tent-like garment that covers the women from head-to-foot), instead of usual scarf she was wearing before, made me deeply sad and wondering what is worst... Staying in a country where as a foreigner you don't have any rights or staying in your own country (still under Taliban's rule) where as a women you don't have them anyway?

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

(500) Days of Summer

Directed by Marc Webb
USA 2009

I must admit - I am not very familiar with US cinematography. Not that I have something against it, I simply find movies form other countries more exiting. But every now and then I stumble upon something that truly amaze me. My way to find interesting films is a little information that certain movie was screened at Sundance Film Festival. Most of the times it works perfectly and this is how I found this gem.

We are warn straight from the beginning that “This is Not A Love Story”, even thought everything seems like it is going to be one. But despite the forewarning we are given, “(500) Days of Summer” is a love story. It may not be the typical one or follow the conventional “predictable romantic comedy” plot devices, but it is still a movie about love. The difference is that is actually quite smart. In the way the plot is pretty much the cliché: boy meets a girl, boy falls in love with girl, girl breaks up with boy, boy has his heart broken, boy gets over girl, boy starts new life. Simple, and one very true to life formula but I really love the new angle this issues are portrayed. This indie movie really took the simple fact of life to a new level by the narration and the cinematography. The arrangement of the plot was superb! It's a refreshingly different take on relationship, and apart from ridiculously melodramatic quitting scene, not at all predictable. This obligatory-happy ending is the only weak point of the movie, apart from it “(500) Days of Summer” is a pure joy!

In a style reminiscent of Annie Hall, “(500) Days of Summer” tells the story of Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a failed architect who makes a living by writing greetings cards, as he reflects back on his relationship with the quirky, independent and allergic to commitment Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Tom is totally in love and fully believes that she is The One. She is attractive. She likes the same music as he does. Summer, on the other hand, is the product of divorced parents that doesn’t believe in love or fate and keeps relationships casual. As the title indicates, this fresh and creative script jumps us back and forth in time through the 500 days of their relationship. That number defines the beginning, middle and end of Tom and Summer - as the film so boldly tells us right up front that that she will break his heart. In non-linearly way, from day 42 to day 1 to day 387 and so on, we are observing changes that happen over the course of a relationship, as Tom is reliving every moment to try and figure out where it all went wrong. We see them break up, then we see them meet, then we see them falling apart, then we see them falling in love. It’s a genuinely interesting take on the narration. I particularly love the idea that Tom works as a copywriter for a greeting card company, so you can imagine how the words on the cards vary according to which stage of the relationship he’s in. I also love the part where the "expectation" and the "reality" scenes were placed next to each other for comparison. Director Marc Webb uses some amusing techniques (a split-screen technique to tell us about their lives in parallel, animation, musical dance number and a hilarious tribute to European cinema) not only to give the film its “indie-ness” but also to show how Tom is experiencing things. Surrealistic visual touches, the awesome soundtrack and incredibly charming characters make this movie as close to perfect as a movie gets.

The movie isn’t flawless though. I've already mentioned the ending, that seems a bit too contrived in contrast to the very real feelings portrayed throughout the rest of the movie. Tom's anti-sentiment rant during an work meeting, when he attacks his colleagues for peddling lies and then resigns out of moral indignation, is a bit too bombast. Also Tom's little sister Rachel (Chloe Moretz), an exceptionally insightful child with social wisdom that couldn’t be explained by her time on this earth, from whom he receives counsel, is charming but sometimes her wisdom is a little bit too much:)

The film is about admitting that sometimes people just aren’t meant to be together in the end. It's as truthful a documentation of love and heartbreak you’ll find on celluloid, an anti-fairytale that plays with the idea of a single soulmate and eternal happiness. It doesn't say anything new about boy meets girl problems, instead, it wins over its audience with a style.

“(500) Days of Summer” is not “Annie Hall” but even if it's not A Great Movie, it's still a thoughtful, bittersweet, subtle, charming and irresistible little film, which you will surely want to see again.