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The Third Wife: The story of a teen bride in 19th-century Vietnam

 

THE THIRD WIFE
directed by Ash Mayfair

Ash Mayfair's film about a teen bride in rural Vietnam is a quietly gripping and culturally specific tale of womanhood.

In late 19th-century Vietnam, 14-year-old May is married off to a rich landowner many years her senior. She takes up the role of his third wife, and so begins the accelerated maturity of a barely teenage girl who must grapple with marriage, motherhood and acquiescence to cultural and societal expectations.

This feature debut by Vietnamese-born, US-trained film-maker Ash Mayfair is astonishingly accomplished in both its formal beauty and storytelling impulse. Shot in the mountains of rural Vietnam, with historically exact sets and production design, the film’s depiction of village life is exquisitely photographed and sharply edited, with myriad short, minimal-dialogue scenes capturing the essence of the time and place.

Equally captivating are the subtle performances from a universally excellent cast. Notable for her ability to hold the focus in every scene of female servitude is young Nguyen Phuong Tra My as May – a schoolgirl plucked from nearly 900 students to play the challenging lead role.

Nguyen’s face doesn’t give much away for most of the film, but her seeming passivity feels like a ticking time bomb as she quietly observes extramarital liaisons and witnesses fluctuations in the household’s balance of power.

May swiftly learns that any power a third wife may desire can come only from the delivery of a son. In a world where women are utterly servile to the needs of the husband and his elderly father, it is inevitable that rivalries unfold, and Mayfair keeps us guessing about how May will assert her importance.

The telling is languid as the camera glides over lush landscapes and through misty mornings, but the story’s underlying tension keeps it sharp.

The daring plot takes some surprising and often shocking turns, and there is a degree of discomfort in watching pubescent girls having to behave far older than their years. But The Third Wife is a feminist tale, not an exploitation movie, and Mayfair, who wrote and directed, drew the narrative from stories told to her by grandmothers with anecdotal experience of traditional Vietnamese life.

She depicts the stages of life among the predominantly female household tastefully, with frequent cutaways to caterpillars, blood-letting and all sorts of eggs. Her film is a quietly gripping, thoughtfully sensual and culturally specific tale of womanhood in all its complications.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

Video: TIFF

This article was first published in the February 1, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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