on 3 October 2015
If it's true that the meek inherit the earth, this beautiful and lyrical film explores a way in which it might happen. Miu is quiet, soft-spoken, obedient. She is gentle, pure and innocent. She's a 10-year-old servant girl who has come from her local village to work in the household of Master and Mistress Trung. Miu accepts her duties thankfully and respects her superiors. In the new household she will wash, clean and learn to cook from an adult female servant.
The year is 1951, the place Saigon. The house is open, airy, breezy, its windows left wide open in the tropical heat. Fans whirr. The Master plays his dan tam (shamisen) and sleeps at mid-day. The Mistress sews and sells cloth, the only income the family now has. The lassitude of the master is unexplained. He could be ill, spoiled or lazy. But later we learn he is selfish and reckless. He takes money from the family earnings and spends it on outside pursuits, which is to say other women. The Mistress, his wife, endures these lapses silently, uncomplainingly, her misery and suffering made worse by her husband's mother who accuses her of not having loved her son enough. The cruel words she hears from the old woman are these:
“I knew from the start my son would be unhappy with you. You have a husband and you don't know how to make him happy. It's your fault. If you'd known how to love him, he wouldn't have left for other women.”
The Master is indolent, feckless and self-centered, but the Mistress is blamed as the cause of it. Or so the accusation goes. In this world, or microcosm of it, the women work, the men play.
Complicating matters in the family is grief and guilt. A young daughter, aged 3, died seven years ago. The Master was away at that time too but somehow the Mistress is held accountable for the death. All day the mother-in-law prays for the souls of the departed (that of her husband and granddaughter).
The Mistress could be bitter but she is not. She is kind and thoughtful to her children, husband, the servants, and even to her mother-in-law, quietly maintaining her dignity. Miu sees and feels this. She feels protected and grateful. Though she has a home back in her local village, the Mistress has become a mother figure to her.
The two boys are shiftless and spoiled. The elder one Lam, aged 12 or 13, is cruel to insects. He drips hot candle wax on them, particularly on ants, just to watch them struggle, suffer and die. He does so without emotion, with blank, unfeeling eyes. The younger boy is Tin, perhaps 6. He's mischievous and a budding bully. He picks on Miu because he can, knowing she dare not complain. He farts when he's around her and pees in front of her. In one case he put lizards in the vases she was asked to dust and clean. She dropped one. It fell to the floor and shattered. The lizard that jumped out frightened her. But the Mistress did not raise her voice in anger. She said it didn't matter, though it did (the vase was a valuable antique).
A young musician named Mr. Khuyen, perhaps aged 22, is sometimes a guest at the house. He is a friend of the Master's and they sometimes play music together. He is quiet, serious, intelligent and sincere. He too is dignified. Mui likes him because he looks at her cheerfully and smiles. She may be a servant, but he sees the girl, the person, not the position. She feels this. Her heart swells when he visits.
One evening Mr. Khuyen is present at the dinner table. Miu asks to make the meal herself that night. She does her best, pouring all her learning into the dishes. She also puts on her best serving dress and wears a necklace. She proudly brings the food on a tray to the table, beaming as she does. Mr. Khuyen notices, bows his head slightly, says not a word but looks at her and smiles. We see her leave the table, her face radiant with joy. She has served and pleased him, and in her world this is everything.
The papaya grow on trees in the garden. That same garden is a home for songbirds, toads, lizards and salamanders. Also for insects: crickets, moths and ants. Miu delights in the movements of these creatures. She watches them calmly, quietly, intently. Her eyes are bright and smiling. White sap drips from a papaya that has just been cut. The sap falls onto the green leaf of a tropical plant. Miu watches it meticulousy. Even this — this white sap — makes her smile.
We often think in dualities, assigning subjects and objects to the world. But the look on Miu's face says her mind works differently. The world she sees with her eyes matches that of her inner world. There is no separation.
The Master is stricken with an illness. It is serious. The doctor comes. Acupuncture and moxibustion are administered. Musicians play to cheer him. But nothing works. He weakens and dies. His mother is unforgiving of the Mistress, holding her accountable for the lost life. The Mistress grieves, suffers, ages rapidly.
Time passes. Ten years, in fact. Miu is now 20, a grown young woman. The Mistress is gray and walks with the aid of a cane. The grandmother isn't around anymore and presumably has died. The elder son Lam has now married and he and his wife live in the house. They talk one night among themselves and decide they can no longer afford to keep Miu on as servant. They remember Mr. Khuyen and how pleased he seemed to be with her. They enquire. Mr. Khuyen consents, agrees.
The time for Miu's departure comes. The Mistress cries and Miu does too. The Mistress says to her:
“Without knowing it you've always been a great comfort. Thanks to you I feel I've had a daughter.”
Miu shares the emotion, parting from the Mistress as though she were her mother. This tender scene is hard to witness.
The household of Mr. Khuyen is very different from what Miu has known. He lives alone as a bachelor. He's a serious musician, a composer. He plays the piano for hours at a time. The music is gentle, melodic. Miu does her work there wordlessly, silently. She cooks and cleans for him. But someone else is present there as well: Mr. Khuyen's fianceé. She is frivolous, possessive, demanding. She dresses elegantly and is evidently rich (or her wealth comes from that of her parents). On the surface all seems well. But then, ever so gradually, cracks begin to appear. Mr. Khuyen says nothing to Miu, or if he does we never hear his comments and commands. He's highly absorbed in his music, though this doesn't mean he's oblivious. In fact we learn indirectly that he has been observing Miu, and she learns this too. In a drawer she discovers drawings he has made of her face. He has a fianceé, but it is not the face of the fianceé he thinks of and draws. It is Miu's.
She responds silently, although we see what she thinks. She puts on her best dress and golden necklace (both departing gifts to her from Mistress Trung). She puts ruby-red lipstick on her lips (the very lipstick left behind one night by the fianceé). Mr. Khuyen comes home early one evening and sees her in front of the mirror — sees the dress and necklace and lipstick. Miu is mortified, sick with embarrassment. She runs to her end of the house, to the servant's quarters. He follows her. He wants to find her. He does. But he's embarrassed too when he does. Nothing is said, but all is remembered. Thereafter he will come to her in the night. He will hesitate, deliberate, but in the end he will open the door to her room. We see her there in her nightgown beyond the mosquito net. But that is all we see, as we are not invited in. He is. Or he has invited himself.
The fianceé is unaccepting. She becomes emotional, violent, vindictive. She strikes Miu. She throws and breaks things. But it doesn't matter. Mr. Khuyen's feelings have changed. He loves someone else. Perhaps he always loved her — loved her even when she was just a little girl. She needed time to grow up and now she has. She stays in his house, but no longer as his servant. He teaches her to read and write. They sit together with books, reading appreciatively to one another. And when he plays the piano she just listens silently, her silence a kind of loving, enveloping protection for him.
If her goodness is meekness, it might also be called her strength. Mr. Khuyen was drawn to it, loved it, and loved her for it.