The Third Wife

Vietnam (2018) Dir. Ash Mayfair

For many young women getting married is – or was – a dream, largely for the pomp and ceremony of the wedding process, not to mention be the sole spectacle in their luscious white bridal gown. In other cultures however, marriage is a choice from the hands of the women and decided by the parents, largely for political and social status desires.

In late 19th century Vietnam, 14 year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) is married off to a wealthy land owner Hung (Long Le Vu), as arranged by her parents, but as part of a polygamous marriage alongside his first two wives, Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya) and Ha (Nu Yên-Khê Tran). To secure her place in the household, May learns bearing a son will ingratiate herself with Hung and propel her ahead of the other wives.

May soon falls pregnant and prays for a son, as the slightly older Xuan has borne two daughters, whist the mature Ha has sired a boy named Son (Nguyen Thanh Tam). But once May’s hormones start to run riot, she begins to develop feelings for Xuan which she struggles to contain, all the while learning of the secret sexual world that surrounds her on the family complex.

An audacious debut, The Third Wife might sound like a steamy Asian period drama-cum-bodice ripper yet surprisingly it devotes as much time exploring the unusual structure of a polygamous household. Based on real events, presumably those involving director Ash Mayfair’s grandmother and great-grandmother, this is a sobering look at askew gender politics according to an antiquated patriarchal society which sadly still exists to this day.

What stands out about this film is how there doesn’t appear to be a urgent message being shared until late in the second act, with there being no real overarching plot to follow, just a series of events in the lives of a contained mini-community. It is actually present throughout but subtly so, told through these events rather than driven by them, leaving each development to occur naturally as opposed to being contrived.

The rural setting, beautifully shot by cinematographer Chananun Chhotrungroj to give the film a dreamlike quality, immediately strips things right down to the bare bones in order to reiterate the normalcy of this practice beyond the royal courts. Hung’s estate is hardly to be sniffed at but certainly isn’t the sprawling palace as seen in epic historical dramas with a similar plotline.

In other words, there are servants but no squads of maids or retainers, whilst the wives all pitch in with the daily duties or washing, cleaning, cooking etc. Quite what Hung does is never revealed though his son is just as much part of the workforce. What is remarkable however, is the absence of any jealousy or scheming against each other by the wives; on the contrary, they are helpful towards one another, work together and both Xuan and Ha help May settle in and give her advice on how to please Hung.

Once again, what it is about Hung that engenders such loyalty isn’t plain to the audience but contextually, women of the period and culture are essentially indoctrinated with the idea their role in life is to serve their men. So, no acts of female empowerment here I’m afraid (not explicitly at least) but don’t sell these women short as weak – it is this “wives club” bond that crucial to everyday harmony and dynamic of the household, since they only have each other to rely on.

Mayfair employs visual metaphors to chart the passage of time, specifically pertaining to May’s journey, such as the sight of a caterpillar upon her marriage into the family, which is followed by its entering the chrysalis phase during the taking of her virginity, and finally wrapped up in a cocoon upon her pregnancy. A little more starkly, the weather tends to take a turn for the worse whenever sadness is abound, tears juxtaposed with droplets of rain off flower buds or tree branches.  

For the central point, this is delineated through the marriage of Son. Apparently around his late teens maybe 20 at the most, this is still decided for him against his protestations as he is having a secret affair with Xuan, but his future is still clearly brighter for being born a male. However on his wedding night, Son refuses to sleep with his child bride which enrages her father, berating her for bringing shame on the family of not being able to do “her one duty in life”.

Not just a horrible scene to watch – and kudos to the young actress playing the girl – but hard to parse through western eyes and those under the purview of modern equality driven sensibilities. I suggested earlier that female empowerment wasn’t a prevalent theme here but the enigmatic ending scene involving young Nhan (another superb junior actress Mai Cát Vi), slyly teases that maybe she has learned something from watching the world around her.

Perhaps the most astounding aspect of this film is the sublime performances of the cast, notably the younger members. Leading the way is Nguyen Phuong Tra My who was only 12 when filming, unusually playing beyond her years for someone so young but showing no signs of her true age. This makes the very brief bedroom scene and the birth a little uncomfortable to watch knowing this but Tra My is amazingly confident from start to end in her first role.

Ash shows arthouse leanings in her presentation and occasionally soporific reliance on silence and stillness but the aforementioned photography keeps us captivated, soothing when required but always honest in what it captures. It will be interesting to see what Ash can do with a properly structured script but there is no denying she is a promising new voice in world cinema.

The Third Wife is a delicately devastating film, socially relevant for modern audiences than it appears yet a stunning insight into Vietnamese history.