It is a testament to Ash Mayfair’s directorial debut that it manages to touch on so much (child brides, sexual politics, patriarchy, infanticide, concubinage) while using so few words. “The Third Wife” (2018) won Mayfair awards and praise from international film festivals, including major prizes at the Toronto International and San Sebastian film festivals, though its impact in her country of birth was a little different: the film was pulled from cinemas in Vietnam.
It is a pity insofar as Mayfair did an excellent job in terms of providing elegant precision to age-old marriage rituals and examining the male-dominant society that was feudal Vietnam in the 19th century, all with stunning visuals. Mayfair’s lens brings a poetic beauty to almost every frame and the consultation she received from renowned Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung (Scent of Green Papaya, Cyclo) is clear.
The film is loosely based on the story of Mayfair’s grandmother who was forced in to an arranged marriage at a young age. It follows the story of 14-year-old May (beautifully played by a just 13-year-old Nguyen Phuong Tra My), as she has an arranged marriage to be the third wife of a much-older wealthy landowner, with a view to bearing him son (he has one young adult son already).
May, just a child, is thrown into this new world as the third and therefore least important wife, though her ranking will rise if she gives birth to a boy. She is quickly dragged into the silent rivalries within the family, but the way they play-out is more nuanced than the simple tit-for-tat and jockeying for position that you might expect in such a scenario, encompassing many layers of complexity. My’s subtle and restrained performance is brilliant, managing to say so much by doing very little. You will not find many child performances that top this anywhere.
“In the end, what are we but dust in the shadow of the Buddha?”
Though set in an era far from our own, one where women are treated more as property than people, it feels relatable and fresh, even where liberties are taken with the script, as when the second wife explains to the third how to sexually satisfy their mutual husband with a frankness one assumes would have been unlikely at the time. Nevertheless, it is a bracing, moving scene. Taking in male chauvinism, adultery, borderline-incest, polygamy and LGBT issues, the film, whilst spare, is loaded with intriguing subplots and is rewarded with a close viewing.
Flowers swinging in the breeze, the gentle flapping of butterfly wings, silkworms slowly wriggling: these beautifully crafted, and often lengthy close ups, are littered throughout the film, no doubt a meditation on life, change and death, but also used as a comment on the various female character’s developing mental states. Mayfair uses very little dialogue throughout the film, nor is the soundtrack particularly prevalent; instead she let the audiences feel silence throughout. You can hear everything from natural sounds to even the light breath of characters, somehow peaceful and harrowing at the same time. The film is a delicate and slow-paced period piece, and it goes without saying that if “Fast and Furious 27” is your favorite film then perhaps “The Third Wife” might not be for you.
Mayfair employs a deft sleigh-of-hand, mixing up wide-angle shots of nature with close-up shots for characters, and when characters do say something it is often meaningful and profound, as when May’s father—probably the wisest character in the film—says: “In the end, what are we but dust in the shadow of the Buddha?” in a not-too-subtle nod to the films Buddhist inspirations.
Portraying a heavily pregnant child-bride making sexual advances to one of her husband’s adult wives was always going to be difficult for the Vietnamese authorities to handle. And so it proved.
Though the film is eager to lay out the horrors women had to suffer in an over century-old feudal society, it is original enough to nod to how it could, sometimes, be difficult for men too, such as when the landowner’s eldest son is forced into an unwanted wedding and his refusal to consummate said marriage causes tragedy for all involved.
“The Third Wife” is never afraid of take bold and unexpected twists, such as when May’s sexual orientations are awakened when she spies two members of her new family engaging in an illicit lusty affair. Portraying a heavily pregnant child-bride making sexual advances to one of her husband’s adult wives was always going to be difficult for the Vietnamese authorities to handle. And so it proved.
Despite being screened all over the world in 2018, only in May 2019 was the film introduced to Vietnamese audiences, receiving mixed opinions, particularly due the fact that a young teenage actress engaged in sexually-charged scenes with much older actors (both male and female). Some accused Mayfair of putting her teenage starlet at psychological risk. Mayfair was quick to point out the film had broken no laws, but the damage had been done and the film was withdrawn after just four days in Vietnamese cinemas, even being fined 2,000 U.S. dollars in the process.
Regardless of the rage the movie seems to have caused at home, it is still a beautiful picture and is a blunt reminder that it is important to condemn long-standing rituals such as child marriage that still exist, even today, in some remote rural areas in Vietnam. For those who appreciate genuine art and have a wider interest in certain historic aspects of Vietnamese culture “The Third Wife” is a stunning, controversial picture that bravely refuses to pull any punches. Recommended.