Vietnam is a beautiful, beautiful country. I think if you have no interest in The Third Wife‘s quiet period drama and struggling women in a male-dominated culture, that beauty is more than enough reason to sit for the film. Were Ash Mayfair’s feature film debut simply a visual showcase for the country, it would be a passable time at the movies. Couple it with a genuine story and subtle nuance in direction, and The Third Wife is something of a subdued masterpiece.
The Third Wife
Director: Ash Mayfair
Release Date: June 28, 2019 (Washington, DC; limited release)
In the 19th century, 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) is married to a wealthy landowner, and quickly becomes pregnant after a feast and wedding-night ceremony. As the landowner’s third wife, May is expected to give birth to a boy, which her husband Hung (Long Le Vu) has been unable to conceive with his previous wives. As the pregnancy progresses we catch glimpses of drama within the family, including miscarriages and forbidden romances, as well as desires May herself doesn’t fully understand.
The Third Wife’s narrative beats are minimal, with developments of gripping drama parsed out over the course of the film’s 96 minutes. Even then, as I found developments revealed to me, I wasn’t particularly riveted or shocked, which could come across as a criticism of The Third Wife‘s engagement with the audience, but is meant as anything but critique.
Not exactly dreamlike or surreal, our pacing is easy to follow and often wordless. It’s simple, but Mayfair’s editing and juxtaposition of images tells her story in simple terms, in a truly filmic, visual style. An art film The Third Wife may be, but it never challenges its audience with cryptic storytelling.
What story is that it’s telling, then? Immediately it might strike the audience how much of a burden is placed on these women, at such a young age forced into motherhood and servitude. Keeping one’s mind open to other cultures, May as Hung’s wife is in no way mistreated; the family lives lavishly, with servants and food aplenty. But the exposure to sex, and responsibility of bearing a child at such a young age leaves May little time to develop her own identity, evident when she shows feelings for another young woman on the family estate. “What you are feeling is not real,” the older girl says, pushing May away. Who’s to say though? By being forced into a heterosexual relationship by way of tradition, May is never allowed to explore her feelings for other women.
There’s little in the way of brutality, but The Third Wife hits on moments of despair and hopelessness later on that cut like a seared blade. We see a botched marriage between a young girl and a passionate son of the family, the son fighting for his true love. The young girl is blamed for ruining an arranged marriage she had absolutely no say in, with dire consequences. Mayfair’s framing of the drama, when true tragedy strikes, is that of a wide, detached image, daring the audience to take in the verdant beauty of the country while the human element stares us down.
And I opened with being gobsmacked by beauty, and we certainly have a showcase for that. Besides the misty rivers and grand mountains, The Third Wife‘s set design and costumes all feel remarkably authentic, not drawing attention to itself in an attempt to flaunt exoticism or evoke a past era while still feeling removed from the look and feel of today. The color palette makes for easy viewing, and its consistency (mostly green) makes other colors appear to be much more pressing.
I think worth mentioning is the film’s inspection of a country and culture Westerners often associate with the Vietnam War, such a blight on history and a predominant factor in painting a scrappy, worn-down country plagued by colonial history and internal division. Though we see clear traces of classism in The Third Wife with the glimpses of poor would-be wives offered to our main, wealthy family, an achievement in depicting a wealthy Vietnamese family shows that yes, this country was and is home to successful people, unravaged by foreign interest and quite capable of taking care of themselves. I think any shred of exposure a culture can get via cinema can be valuable, and The Third Wife beautifies its home country while also asking prodding questions about its social structure.
And perhaps The Third Wife is so effective as a piece of gender critique because it does less in the way of saying what is and isn’t right, and instead simply observes. The aforementioned dull pangs of action sap the film of melodrama, which has the ability to turn the audience into zealots for a cause or opponents of the message, upset by a writer’s heavy-handedness. By reeling back the complexity, The Third Wife gives us an ethereal view. It doesn’t allow for its characters to judge their situations, keeping them alive and thinking in their historical moment, the roles into which they were born. Instead we as the audience are asked to observe and draw our own conclusions, and sometimes that’s the best approach.
Ultimately I think it’s the calm voyeurism of The Third Wife that can endear it to just about any audience, whether you’re a hardcore film buff or a casual admirer of a good story. In my mind, that’s about as good as a movie can be; when we’re so-effortlessly transported into another time and place, in the shoes of someone whose life we can only imagine. The Third Wife‘s lasting triumph is that it’s a remarkably human film, ready to be digested and considered by anyone and, in a perfect world, everyone. Humanity: what more can you ask for!