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Mui du du xanh

This gorgeously lyrical Vietnamese movie, written and directed by Anh Hung Tran, concerns Mui, a young servant girl come from the countryside to work for a family in 1951 Saigon. Mui's work is hard, but she is treated well by the mother and elderly servant; the three women toil endlessly, unlike the father, who seems to do nothing but play classical Vietnamese instruments and nap; the eldest son, who is polite enough but generally out with his friend Khuyen; and the two younger sons, who take out their anger on those more helpless than themselves, the middle boy pouring hot wax on ants, the younger taunting Mui with geckos on sticks and piss on the floor. For the family has a dark sadness: the father periodically takes all the family's money and leaves, only to return penniless, and the last time he did so he came back to find that his only daughter had sickened and died, for which he blames himself. Mui is 10, the same age as the daughter would have been had she lived.

We learn these circumstances through sparse dialogue and loving, detailed images that unfold before our eyes as the camera follows Mui about her duties, lighting the cook-fire in the morning, washing clothes, mopping floors, stir-frying vegetables, serving the men and boys their meals, chopping green papaya for salad. Mui performs all her tasks with grace, never complaining, never shirking, never seeming tired or unwilling. Though she works hard, she takes joy in simple everyday occurences: an ant struggling under a heavy load, the croak of a frog, the drip of sap on a leaf. The movie has long stretches with no dialogue at all, the only sounds bird calls, frog song, the clack-clack of the grandmother at her prayers, the slap of sandals as the women go about their endless tedious tasks.

Inevitably the father absconds with the family's money again, and the mother smiles gamely as customers pass by her small fabric shop, while in the courtyard the servants watch the rice supply dwindle and add more fish sauce to the curry to make it go farther. The grandmother berates the mother for not knowing how to please her husband, and the middle son reaches a hand to touch his mother's foot as she cries. Eventually the errant father returns, but sickens and dies, and so the women struggle quietly on without him.

Ten years later it seems best to the mother to send Mui to work for Khuyen, for his family is well-off and he lives alone. He has become a classical musician who spends his days before the piano, playing Debussy and composing avant garde pieces; he has a sophisticated urban fiancee who chatters charmingly in French. He hardly seems to notice Mui as she glides around his house, preparing delicious delicacies which she lays out for him to eat, turning on the lamps in the evening, making the bed each morn. But eventually he comes to notice the beautiful young woman who worships him through her endless loving labour, and begins to view her - and sketch her - as a Buddha.

I cringed with something akin to horror when he enters her room one night - what could she do but give in to his advances, wanted or not? - but in the last few moments of the movie we see him teaching her to read, not condescendingly, but lovingly, patiently, and with pride in her progress. The viewer realizes with a start that these are the first words adult Mui has spoken on screen; the movie ends with a radiantly pregnant Mui reading poetry while Khuyen listens.

This movie is all about the humble details of Vietnamese women's work and their circumscribed domestic life. I know enough about such things to realize what great lengths Anh went to to bring authenticity to his portrait of household life in colonial Vietnam. The clay rice cooker and wooden paddle, the way Mui holds the green papaya and the knife she uses to cut it, the carved wooden screens that run around the tops of the rooms to allow cool breezes to blow through, the bamboo staves on which Mui hangs the laundry to dry, the women's modest washing of face and hands over a tin basin in a corner of the courtyard: all of this is instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent time in rural Asia. And it's all the more amazing when you learn that this movie was filmed entirely on a stage set in Paris.

This film was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film in 1993. I thought it was achingly beautiful, and I highly recommend.

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