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Beauty Rather Than Depth

Vietnamese-born director emphasizes artful settings over dramatic power in `Scent of Green Papaya'

VIETNAM has an unusually high profile on American movie screens just now.

Oliver Stone's third film on the Vietnam war, ``Heaven and Earth,'' has garnered much attention and publicity despite its regrettably shallow approach to complex issues. A series of six films called ``Love and War: Cinema of Vietnam,'' presented by Asian CineVision, is being theatrically released. And the Museum of Modern Art in New York is about to launch ``Vietnamese Cinema,'' a series comprising seven films produced in Vietnam and selected in cooperation with a Vietnamese curator.

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Rounding out this activity, a prize-winning film by a Vietnamese director is now having its American theatrical premiere. ``The Scent of Green Papaya'' is the first movie ever submitted by Vietnam for consideration as a possible Academy Award nominee for best foreign-language film, and it has already won the Camera d'Or for best film by a first-time director at the Cannes film festival.

The popularity of ``The Scent of Green Papaya'' within the film community may well be repeated among general audiences. It is a gorgeously filmed movie, with likable performances and long stretches of lucid visual storytelling.

Its effectiveness is hampered by its limited emotional range, though, and by its determination to remain entrancingly beautiful no matter what happens in the lives of its characters. It also raises important historical questions about the long history of French colonialism in Vietnam. But despite its status as a French-Vietnamese coproduction, the film fails to explore those questions.

A peasant girl's tale

The story centers on a character named Mui, first seen as a 10-year-old peasant girl in the early 1950s.

Engaged as a servant by a merchant-class family in Saigon, she learns the rituals of her new vocation - particularly those connected with preparing and serving food - from an old woman who works alongside her. She also learns important lessons about life by observing the household that surrounds her, including an abandoned wife and two children whose mischievous behavior may mask deeper disturbances.

The film's second part takes place in 1962, when Mui has been ousted from her longtime relationship with the merchant family and has gone to work for a successful musician. She has admired him since childhood, and falls goofily in love with him now that he's her boss - notwithstanding his elegant, French-style habits and his attachment to a girlfriend who's as Eurocentric as he is.

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The film's most compelling scenes show Mui setting her hopes on romance with him, half yearning and half fearing that he might return her affection.

Tran Anh Hung, who directed ``The Scent of Green Papaya,'' was born in Vietnam and moved to Paris with his family when he was about the age of Mui in the movie. In film school he studied cinematography rather than directing, and this has affected his work. Every composition, color, and camera movement in ``The Scent of Green Papaya'' is carefully and lovingly arranged - which makes for a great deal of visual beauty, but hampers the story's dramatic power with a sense of self-consciousness and artificiality. No event or feeling is strong enough to muss up the picture's impeccable good looks, or take on a life of its own beyond the gaze of Tran's controlling camera.

Adding to this problem is the fact that Tran and his collaborators chose to film the movie in France, after deciding that Vietnam couldn't provide the settings and backgrounds necessary for a tale of the 1950s and '60s. Their studio sets are as painstakingly crafted as their cinematography, but seem less real and vital than the characters who inhabit them.

It's to the credit of the performers - especially Tran Nu Yen-Khe and Lu Man San, who play Mui at two different ages - that they remain engaging and alive under these circumstances. Too often, the movie that encloses them is more photographic than cinematic, and this condition can be a hindrance to emotionally vigorous acting.

French influence lingers

The irony of ``The Scent of Green Papaya'' is that it looks and sounds more like a French art movie - reflecting the cautious ``tradition of quality'' in French filmmaking - than a product of Vietnam's own national cinema, which barely exists as an industry, but has produced a considerable body of work despite chronically low budgets and shortages of equipment and technicians.

Vietnam is free of French rule in political affairs, but French influence clearly lingers in the style and substance of some Vietnamese cultural products - including this movie, which depicts the strong French influence on Vietnam in aesthetic terms that seem equally French in their own right.

Tran's film would be stronger if it didn't just reproduce this influence, but examined it with a curious and critical eye. Perhaps this will happen in the next movie he has planned - the story of a contemporary bicycle-taxi driver, to be filmed on location in Ho Chi Minh City, with a technical crew trained in advance by Christophe Rossignon, the producer of Tran's movies.

If that film supplements the niceties of European art cinema with a sense of living Vietnamese authenticity, it could be a work of real importance.

``The Scent of Green Papaya'' does not have a rating. It contains a few instances of scatological humor.

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