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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

entry arrow1:52 AM | 1993 Best Foreign Language Film Reloaded: How to Listen and Fall in Love

Part 6 of a Series

And finally we come to the last film nominated for Oscar's Best Foreign Language Film in 1993.

There is no overt story being told in Trần Anh Hùng's sensuous The Scent of Green Papaya, Vietnam's nominated entry (its first, and so far its last). Although once you let the film's rhythm embrace you, by and by, you do get a certain thread of a storyline -- and yet you quickly get that this is a film that is, above all, about atmosphere. The story follows a girl named Mui, newly arrived from the countryside, who comes to a neighbourhood somewhere in the outskirts of a city, and we get the impression that this is Vietnam before the fall of Saigon. Mui is taken in as a servant by a family -- the mother is a patient smalltime businesswoman, her husband seems to be a lout, their three young sons are consumed by the boredom and itches of adolescence, and their old cook stands in the margins, observing all. The film follows Mui's days and nights in this household, observing the minutiae of her life, until a shift happens midway where we finally see her as a young woman falling in love with the young master of the house she is currently serving.

I remember this film most as if it was something being told by way of a dream, or at least that brief moment we get upon waking where we are still floating in the boundaries of a dream before the claws of reality finally take hold of our senses. I think this is the impression I got of the film 21 years ago when I first saw it because it is largely a very quite movie, with snatches of dialogue here and there, but one that is also aware of the power of music and ambient sound. That carefully orchestrated mix of sound and music -- in particular Debussy's "Clair de Lune" -- are the cues with which we see things through Mui's senses. The feel and smell of green papaya seeds. The warbling of crickets. The crackle of sautéed vegetables in a wok. The sound of glass cracking. The sight of ants in a warpath. And sometimes above this beautiful mix of meditative silence and domestic sound, the drone of invisible warplanes in the distance.

You come away from Trần Anh Hùng's film knowing you have been made privy to an experience like no other. And this is what distinguishes Scent of Green Papaya high and above the other films in the nominee list. It is the most cinematic of them all, and pushes the art form towards aesthetics that are not easily handled, but here we see it displayed in virtuosic grandness -- but a grandness that springs from little things and small observations. This film should have won the 1993 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. That the least of them all -- Fernando Trueba's Belle Epoque -- won is testament once again of Oscar's overwhelming Euro-centricity, where France, Italy, Germany, and Spain dominate regardless of how the rest of world cinema fares. Three Asian films triumphed in 1993, and a poorly made Spanish sex comedy gets the prize.

But to get back to my main point. Sure, the Asian film often gets short shrift in the Oscars. But what of the Filipino film? Will we finally get Oscar recognition with Lav Diaz's Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan? That's my next post.

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