FILM / Fruit of his labours: At last, a film about Vietnam that's made by a Vietnamese director and filmed in . . . Paris? Sheila Johnston talks to Tran Anh Hung about his adventures on The Scent of Green Papaya

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There must be little doubt that the Orient is now at the cutting edge of world cinema: last month, the dark horse from Spain might have won the Best Foreign Film Oscar (to general astonishment), but three out of the five nominations in that category came from the Far East - China's Farewell My Concubine, the US / Taiwanese The Wedding Banquet and, from Vietnam, Tran Anh Hung's The Scent of Green Papaya (reviewed opposite), which was also named Best First Feature at Cannes last year against fierce competition.

This last is a real turn-up for the books as, film-wise, Vietnam is still a terra incognita. Hollywood harps on it endlessly, of course, but Vietnamese-eye-views of the country are still almost unknown here, as are films that don't automatically treat it as a Big Political Issue. Green Papaya is an exquisite miniaturist portrait of Mui, a young woman who enters service with a wealthy family in the Fifties. It's a flute solo to the big, booming brass band of Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth.

The director, Tran Anh Hung, is 31 but looks barely out of short trousers, an appearance slightly at odds with his new prominence swanning around international film festivals, where people are prone, he says, to enquire how he's getting along at school. 'In South America, people assume that this is a porn film because there the papaya is a symbol of the female sex organ,' he says explaining his title.

'But in Vietnam it doesn't have that connotation. The scent is a childhood memory: it's fresh, a bit like a cucumber. The green papaya is a plain, everyday dish in Vietnam, and very bound up with women's work. It grows everywhere, you can buy it for next to nothing. When it's ripe, it's also a fruit but one which doesn't interest writers at all because it's too ordinary. It's like people's feet: no one ever talks about them in literature, although I find them beautiful and revealing.'

Tran left Vietnam for Paris in 1975, and only returned there for the first time to recce Papaya. But anyone who sees the film, with its shimmering light, its wealth of intently photographed, almost super-real domestic detail and its teeming plant and insect life, will be astonished to learn that it was shot entirely in a Paris studio. 'I couldn't find the locations I wanted in Vietnam - there are so many television aerials and things grafted on to the houses; it's as if they had cancer. So even there, I decided to build my own sets. I would have made the film in Vietnam, but the monsoon season started, and then we got French co-producers on condition that we shot it in their studio. So, rather than wait several months for the rains to end and lose out on the extra money, we went to Paris.

'We had 900 kilowatts of light, a huge amount. It was as hot in the studio as it actually is in Vietnam, and, with all the vegetation we had to keep watered, it was just as humid. The insects we brought over bred furiously; they were taken in by it. And we brought in a lot of plants. The only problem was the papaya, which is part-vegetable and part-fruit, and very, very fragile. All the papaya plants were dead when they arrived, so we used the trunks and stuck on fake leaves.'

Tran employed simple formal techniques to help create the optical illusion. 'I never use a simple frame; there's always a window creating a frame within the film frame, and behind it another window looking out on to something else. It was a way of resolving the problem of a closed set. And I also tried to have lots of things in the background, to open up the image: I spent all my time placing objects there that I knew would be out of focus, that you won't recognise, but which add a splash of colour.

Green Papaya is, in fact, one of the most visually controlled films you're likely to see this year. Tran's meditative, highly crafted style is quite unlike conventional, action-driven Hollywood film language. 'I had to re-think the editing. For example, suppose I want to show someone handing over an object, first in a long shot and then in a close-up. Normally, you would show the gesture, and then cut to the close-up on the movement.

'In other words, the character's action dictates the editing. In my films it's the opposite: I don't cut on action. The characters don't control the editing, it's the editing which controls the characters, just as fate controls the characters in the stories. People are reduced; they seem not to have any freedom. It's fascinating work. Both my two short films are like that, though the feature is a little different.'

Tran's short films are definitely of a fatalistic, even tragic bent. In one, set during the Vietnamese war, a peasant leaves for the front. 'At home, by night, the wife makes a shadow against the sheet and tells their child it's his father. One morning two years later, when the father returns, the child rejects him, saying that his father only comes by night. The wife commits suicide.' In another, two boat-people meet in a transit camp in Indonesia, marry in Paris and have a child. One evening the husband discovers that his wife is actually his long-lost sister and, shattered, leaves home. Papaya seems to conclude on a sunny note: Mui becomes pregnant by, and marries, her wealthy young master. But, Tran says, she is merely exchanging one kind of servitude for another, more subtle one.

'Some people perceive it as a happy ending. But others understand very well what I wanted to say. I think it's a very Oriental idea, too, to create a harmonious form which is a kind of mask. There are many problems, but the form doesn't reveal that; it seems that everything is going well. What's actually happening isn't harmonious at all. I create a doubt about the male character: he's someone who loves pleasure too much to treat Mui properly and be faithful. And I think once she has had children, she will lose her bloom.

'If I'd made this film a couple of years earlier, I would have done it differently, more in a spirit of revolt: saying that this isn't right, that women are slaves. But servitude isn't like that in Asia, the problem is so interiorised and accepted that it becomes a form of self-sacrifice. I didn't want to go in fighting for women's rights: first of all we have become aware of this sacrifice and pay homage to it. I just show it the way it is. It's a melancholy, poignant feeling.'

Tran now lives with his beautiful leading actress, Tran Nu - 'She turned up for the casting call, I phoned her, and since then we've never been apart' - with whom, he claims, he has a thoroughly modern and equal relationship: 'I try to do the washing up as often as possible,' he says. They could do away with the question altogether, I suggest, by buying a dishwasher, but Tran, needless to say, doesn't buy this easy solution to the ancient dilemma: 'Not necessarily,' he says. 'Because there is always someone who has to put the dirty dishes into the machine . . .'

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(Photograph omitted)