A sensual debut feature from Vietnam that explores the impact of an ultra-patriarchal community on its sufferable women, with beautiful and naturalistic cinematography to boot.
Dir. Ash Mayfair
2018 | Vietnam | Drama | 96 mins | Vietnamese
R21 (passed clean) for sexual content
Cast: Nguyen Phuong Tra My, Mai Thu Huong Maya, Long Le Vu
Plot: 14-year-old May is ready to become the third wife of a wealthy landowner. Little does she know that her hidden desires will take her by surprise and force her to make a choice between living in safety and being free.
Awards: Won NETPAC Award (Toronto)
International Sales: m-appeal
Singapore Distributor: Anticipate Pictures
Subject Matter: Mature
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed at Singapore Film Society screening)
A winner of the NETPAC Award at Toronto, The Third Wife is a promising start to Ash Mayfair’s feature filmmaking career. I enjoyed it for a number of reasons. Firstly, its cinematography is top-notch, featuring wide landscape shots of the tranquil natural environment that give the film its lush look.
The film is also very sensual and intimate, with shots of the interior at night occasionally bathed in candlelight. Lanterns also hang from the roof as the night passes, which echoes Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991).
Film debut of Nguyen Phuong Tra My, who was just 12 years old when she was initially cast as the lead character May. She was chosen among 900 girls by director Ash Mayfair after a nationwide casting.
In fact, the plot of The Third Wife is rather similar—both films are about the women who become wives to a master in a seemingly self-contained community, though the mood of Zhang’s film is certainly more claustrophobic. In contrast, Mayfair’s film feels airy and uninhibited.
As the title suggests, the focus is on a third wife named May, played with radiance by the genteel Nguyen Phuong Tra My. May is only 14 years old and already forced into a marriage with a wealthy landowner. She’s meek and kind, but her curiosity leads her to unchartered territory involving secrets and hidden desires.
The setting is a rural village in 19th century Vietnam, which explains the evocative cinematography, but unfortunately also the social attitudes of that time, where the ultra-patriarchal community treats women as servants of men, in life and in sex.
Modern Vietnamese law requires men to be at least 20 years old and women to be at least 18 before marrying. However, child marriage and arranged marriages persist in rural areas.
Sex is indeed a major discovery for May, as well as its associated themes of infidelity, taboo desires and self-pleasure. Mayfair manages to tackle all of these from the point-of-view of a maturing May, whose observations of the people around her spark the biggest question of all that she must contend with: is there really no way out being a woman in her world?
The Third Wife takes its time to establish both its outer natural world and inner psychological world, which mimic May’s entrance into the new family and environment. In fact, we get to feel as hazy as the titular character from the onset, as there is no significant word of dialogue until nearly 10 minutes in.
As a work about sufferable women that still speaks to today’s continuing gender discrimination, Mayfair’s film draws us back to a beautiful if ugly past with delicate ease. The use of ambient and ethnic percussive instrumentations in the original score is also one of the film’s many sensual highlights.