Tran Anh Hung and His Vietnam Trilogy

There is nothing can beat the trilogy by Tran Anh Hung when you want to recommend films about the Vietnamese culture to your international friends. Those three movies bring fully Vietnamese spirit to the audiences, not only by the antiquated architecture, mind-boggling language, sophisticated cuisine, but also the way the characters live and react in each scene.

Tran Anh Hung’s career- from a refugee to the icon of Vietnamese cinema.

Tran Anh Hung was born in the south of Vietnam. Then, he and his family emigrated to France at the age of six after the fall of Sai Gon at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. After seeing ‘A Man Escaped by Chance’ of Robert Bresson, he decided to study photography at the Louis Lumiere Academy in Paris. Over the last two decades, Tran Anh Hung has been in the vanguard of a wave of internationally recognized Vietnamese arthouse cinema. [1]

Tran Anh Hung and his wife
Tran Anh Hung and his wife- Tran Nu Yen Khe, the main actress in his trilogy about Vietnam/ Dep Magazine.

Hung started his professional career with The Scent Of Green Papaya (1993), his Oscar-nominated film for Best Foreign Film, and also won two top prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. Thanks to the success of his debut, he was able to secure money for his second picture, Cyclo (1995), which won the Golden Lion at the 52nd Venice International Film Festival. What’s more, he also was one of the youngest directors to be honored in this festival, at the age of 33. Then, in 2000, he released The Vertical Ray Of The Sun, the third puzzle piece to complete his “Vietnam trilogy” picture. [1]

Tran Anh Hung official poster
The official poster of ‘The Vertical Ray Of The Sun’

His works intended to re-create the image of Vietnam that he had lost when he moved to France, as well as to present audiences with a different perspective about Vietnam, which has long been dominated by French and American cinemas. The storylines are based on his understanding of Vietnamese culture as well as his first-hand experience from journeys to the motherland. [1]

Tran Anh Hung set decor
The kitchen of Sai Gon in the late 1940s/ The Scent Of Green Papaya

The Vietnam Trilogy by Tran Anh Hung

The factor that impressed me the most about this thematic trilogy was its unique cinematic language and the atmosphere in those movies. Most scenes were frequently filmed through and against windows, door openings, mirrors, and other naturally occurring frames. This can have a variety of connotations, the most obvious of which is a sense of entrapment, in which people are stuck in roles imposed on them by the old society and family expectations, arranged marriage, deep-rooted norms, or by their own complex emotions.

Hung has followed the perfection in every single frame in his film, from the lighting to shot composition in order to convey the hidden message or reveal the unspeakable feelings of the characters/ The Scent of Green Papaya

The lighting and framing techniques played a vital part of what makes Hung’s cinematography beautiful and atmospheric. The use of close-up shots in all three films had brought a very specific, almost tangible texture to the scenes. I must admit that the whole significance of all of these frames, which Hung claimed to be highly meaningful and deliberate, eluded me at the first time I watched them (when I was 16 If my memory serves me well). Nevertheless, I found those art pieces very aesthetically pleasing!

One of my most favorite frames within his Trilogy/ The Scent Of Green Papaya

The Scent of Green Papaya (1993)

The Scent was a film that depicted a Vietnamese household in the late 1940s and early 1960s through the perspective of a young girl, Mui (her name also means ‘scent’ in Vietnamese), who was a servant in a wealthy family. She paid close attention to everything around her, and as she blossomed into a lovely woman, her simple decency impressed people surround. When she first started working for the family as an adopted orphan child, she learned her chores fast and well, and she completed them in such a quiet and discreet manner that she could become invisible right in that house. But this girl is still a very real person. She is patient, all-seeing, and the film is a reflection of her awareness. She saw beauty in the tiniest of details: The aroma of green papaya, a drop of water quivering on a leaf, a line of ants, a frog in a puddle after the rain, the sunray went through the green leaves outside the window. The audiences will be immersed in the bright, innocent visual of the film, following scene by scene like observing the exquisite poem for the naked eyes.

Mui- the orphan child was adopted by a wealthy family in Sai Gon/ The Scent of Green Papaya

Cyclo (1995)

Cyclo was an entirely different, much darker street-life experience that was mesmerizing, complicating, excessively violent, and infuriating all at once compared to his first film. The story is about a group of people who live in the outside of society. The main character was a humble pedicab driver (cyclo) attempting to make a living by carrying passengers around the city in order to support his family. He was just scraping by until he is targeted by a local gang. They steal his cyclo, making him unable to work. He had no choice but to run errands for the gang’s madam.

Cyclo is much darker than Hung’s first movie. Vietnamese government even banned this movie at that time because it brought up the naked truth of the society in Sai Gon after the War / Cyclo

The Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000)

Hung’s third feature film portrayed the story of three sisters, two married, one single in a typical family in the old Ha Noi. The film opened with the death anniversary of their mother and ends a month later with the death anniversary of their father. In the meanwhile, their peaceful, perfect life was completely shattered by betrayal, miscarriages, lies, and increasing incestuous sentiments between siblings. Every single scene in the film brilliantly captured a season of heat and humidity in the North of Viet Nam, when daily motion was to be avoided, and wandering around when the temperature was still cool was the most delightful moment of the day. Sisters got together, cooking, singing, and sharing their secret concerns. The guys were shown in a more hazy manner throughout the film.

Three sisters are preparing the meal for their father’s memorial day/ The Vertical Ray Of The Sun

The director made me feel that it’s so pointless to wrap up and solve the character’s problems that, eventually the audiences won’t remember if it did or not when it’s finished. It’s not about a happening itself, but rather a longing for the slower pace and tranquility of bygone moments. Similarly, all three films luxuriated in scenes of women singing, either professionally or in their home. That was ultimately the impression that will last the longest in my mind: of a Vietnam in which life passes by languidly, occasionally with Vietnamese cuisine and beautiful music, while the dramatic also happens to happen.


Together this Vietnam Trilogy created a vibrant image of Vietnam, portraiting love, family bonds, class divides, wealth, and good food, but also of betrayal, despair, and poverty. In one of his talks, Tran Anh Hung shared that he was inspired by Picasso’s idea about the existence of language even in the most abstract forms of art. From this, he created his own cinematic language and certainly, the filming techniques used in his movies, which helped him communicate with his audiences. A New York film critic, Janet Maslin, stated that Tran Anh Hung was a filmmaker of ‘unusual sophistication’ in his generation.


[1]. Tran Anh Hung biography. Accessed Feb 5, 2022.

Leave a Reply