Family & Companions
This resourceful young Vietnam-born, Parisian-bred filmmaker recreated an airy bourgeois home, set in 1951 Saigon, on a French soundstage for his debut feature "The Scent of Green Papaya" (1993). Opting for a cinema that boldly flaunts its artificiality, Tran told a simple but sensual fable of a young girl who comes to work as a servant for a well-to-do Vietnamese family. The papaya--eaten as a fruit when ripe, cooked as a vegetable when green--is a staple of the Vietnamese diet prepared by women of all social strata. Tran used this and other domestic rituals to draw parallels between the lives of his various female characters.
Tran moved from his native Vietnam with his family to Laos at age four. After eight years, the family moved to France. Tran became a filmmaker in Paris, crafting two student shorts featuring his favorite actress (and future wife) Tran Nu Yen Khe, who would later star in "Papaya." These were "The Married Woman of Nam Xuong" (1987) and "The Stone of Waiting" (1991). He returned to Vietnam in 1991, planning to shoot "Papaya" there, but a lack of facilities, personnel, and inclement weather made the task impractical. Instead, he made a Saigon of the mind, shot entirely on soundstages in Paris. Filmed in Vietnamese, "The Scent of Green Papaya" became the first feature for Vietnam to be submitted for Oscar consideration for and win a nomination as Best Foreign-Language Film.
For his sophomore effort, Tran scripted and directed "Cyclo" (1995; released theatrically in the USA in 1996), a visually stunning, but darkly violent study of life in contemporary Vietnam. Filmed on location (often surreptitiously to avoid Vietnamese government censors), and firmly rooted in the daily life of the crowded streets of Ho Chi Minh City, "Cyclo" focuses on an orphaned pedicab driver who, through a series of manipulations, becomes involved in a life of crime. At its start, the film references Vittorio De Sica's "The Bicycle Thief" (1947), but where that film devolved into pathos and sentimentality, "Cyclo" moves into the realm of social drama and turbulence. To capture the central character's point of view, the director employed numerous techniques, creating through extreme close-ups, documentary-style montages and editing a dreamy, exhausted, almost hallucinatory world. Aided greatly by Benoit Delhomme's stunning photography, Tran captured both the sensuousness of the countryside with its vivid palette and juxtaposed it with the cool, graphic violence endemic to the story. In the pivotal role of the Poet, a sympathetic, seductive pimp, Tran cast the handsome, charismatic Chinese actor Tony Leung-Chiu Wai, while the female lead, the title character's sister who becomes a virginal prostitute, was played by Tran's wife Tran Nu Yen Khe. The remaining roles were taken by locals with little previous acting experience. The overall effect was a tribute to the helmer's craftsmanship, marred only by a somewhat unlikely ending.
Director (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Moved with family from Vietnam to Laos, where they remained for eight years
Family moved to Paris, France
Directed his first student short film, "The Married Woman of Nam Xuong," starring Tran Nu Yen-Khe in the title role
Made second student short film, "The Stone of Waiting"; second film with actress Tran Nu Yen-Khe
Returned to Vietnam for the first time since 1975
Wrote and directed his first feature, "The Scent of Green Papaya"; shot in France instead of Vietnam because of various problems
Second feature, "Cyclo" shown at the New York Film Festival; shot on location in Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam; released theatrically in 1996
Directed "A la verticale de l'ete/The Vertical Ray of the Sun", focusing on a reunion between four siblings