This is a lovely French-Vietnamese film that tells the story of Mui (Man San Lu), a ten year old, illiterate girl with a sweet disposition who becomes a servant in a traditional upper middle class, Saigon household in 1951 Vietnam. Separated from her mother at such a young age, Mui takes the world in stride, enjoying and savoring all that is around her. Even the simple scent of green papaya charms her. She is definitely someone who looks at her glass as being half-full rather than half-empty.
She comes to the household like a breath of fresh air. The household consists of a mother, a father, three sons, and the grandmother, the father's mother. The mother (Thi Loc Truong) seems to be a somewhat unhappy woman. Having lost her only daughter, a child that would have been Mui's age had she lived, the sight of Mui makes her happy. She otherwise has little about which to be happy. The father (Ngoc Trung Tran), a seemingly uncommunicative man, spends his time playing melancholic music. He occasionally leaves the household for months at a time, taking with him the family's money and small valuables in order to carouse and have a good time, leaving the mother to fend for the family as best that she can. The grandmother is given to berating her, blaming her for the father's absences.
There are three sons in the household, two young ones who play pranks and torment others, as well as a much older son, whose best friend, Khuyen (Hoa Hoi Vuong), occasionally comes to dinner. It is there that he first catches Mui's eye, and she is smitten, developing a little crush on him. Ten years later, with the family on the skids, their wealth having dissipated, the father and mother-in-law now dead, the oldest son married to a shrew, a now twenty year old Mui (Tran Nu Yen Khe), who is quite lovely to look at, can no longer remain in the household, as they can no longer afford to keep her. She is to go and work in the household of the wealthy Khuyen. The mother, heartbroken at Mui's leaving, gives her valuable gifts that she would have given her own daughter, had she but lived.
When Mui goes to Khuyen's westernized household, the influence of the French being obvious, Khuyen is engaged to a very cosmopolitan and worldly woman who makes demands upon Khuyen that upset the harmony of his life. Khuyen is an artist, as he is a composer and pianist. Mui quietly walks around the fringes of his life, bringing peace, harmony, and beauty along with her. Comparisons to Khuyen's fiance are inescapable. Mui is now a beautiful young woman who still delights in the simplest things around her. One day she decides to use the valuable gifts that her former employer gave her. The artist in Khuyen cannot help but notice. It is then that Mui's life is transformed and becomes the stuff of fairytales.
Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, this is simply a beautiful film. With a minimum of dialogue, the director, Tran Anh Hung, who also wrote the screenplay, manages to convey much, exacting exquisite performances from the entire cast. It is Mui, however, who captures the heart of the viewer. Mui is a pure delight, patient, joyful, and loving. It is the role of Mui that is central to the film, and both actresses succeed brilliantly in anchoring the film through their respective portrayals. Moreover, although most of the film takes place in the two households in which Mui works, the film does not cease to fascinate. It is hard to believe that this film was shot on a sound stage in Paris, as the sets look so authentic. This is not a film for everyone, however, as the scenes are slow and deliberate and contain little dialogue. For those for whom beauty is of the essence, their patience will be amply rewarded.