“THE THIRD WIFE”— Coming of Age

“THE THIRD WIFE”

Coming of Age

Amos Lassen

Film Movement brings us “The Third Wife”, a  beautiful coming-of-age story; a tale of love and self-discovery in a time when women were rarely given a voice. Set in the late 19th century in rural Vietnam, fourteen-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) is given away in an arranged marriage and becomes the third wife to her older husband. She learns that she can gain status and security if she gives birth to a male child and this becomes a real possibility when she gets pregnant. However, her life is filled with danger when May starts to develop an attraction for Xuan(Mai Thu Huong),  the second wife. As May observes the unfolding tragedy of forbidden love and its consequences, she must decide to either carry on in silence and safety, or create a way towards personal freedom.

At 14, travels up river to marry a man she has never met and start a new life on his family’s silk plantation. The household, which includes servants, her husband’s two other wives and their children, is a place where intimacy and cruelty can be hard to tell apart. It’s the center of a world rendered with pathos and somewhat prurient fascination. This is  Ash Mayfair’s debut feature.
May’s new home is in a steep valley filled with flowering trees and airy wooden buildings and it is both a paradise and a prison. May’s daily routines are governed by rigid, patriarchal customs and rituals but they also include time  for solitude and even pleasure. The two senior wives, Lao (Nguyen Nhu Quynh Le) and Xuan welcome her with big-sisterly advice about sex, childbirth and domestic politics.

At 14, May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) travels up river to marry a man she has never met and start a new life on his family’s silk plantation. The household, which includes servants, her husband’s two other wives and their children, is a place where intimacy and cruelty can be hard to tell apart. It’s the center of a world rendered with pathos and somewhat prurient fascination in “The Third Wife,” Ash Mayfair’s debut feature.

The story, which follows May from the day of her arrival through a pregnancy, shows us her social and physical surroundings with a quiet clarity. The seasons of her forced transition from child to mother are seen according to the silk worms  which are a source of metaphorical as well as economic sustenance. Like the worms, the wives are part of a cottage industry that mixes beauty and utility, captives of their own productivity.

When May becomes pregnant, she prays for a boy, observing that Xuan, who has given birth to two daughters, holds a lower status than Lao, the mother of sons. She also observes the affair between Xuan and their husband’s oldest son, a relationship that brings conflict and tragedy to the family.

 “The Third Wife” gives us a look at a tableau of injustice from a perspective that feels both compassionate and detached. We see a male-dominated hierarchy that directly oppresses women and brings misery to some men as well.

The cruelty that May encounters is a fact of life, as is the solidarity she occasionally experiences with Lao and especially with Xuan. The possibility of freedom occasionally seems real and the  final scenes allude to  “desperate and defiant” acts of resistance.

Here is one of the great scientific injustices throughout human history. Women have been blamed for not producing a male heir, even though it is only the father who can supplies the determining chromosome.. As the junior-most wife of a wealthy Vietnamese plantation owner, May’s position depends on her ability to give birth to a boy. The dysfunctional family dynamics and her first stirrings of passion also confuse May.

May looks even younger than her fourteen years, so the idea of her marrying anyone is rather disturbing. Nonetheless, she fulfills her wedding night duties and is soon pregnant. She is probably rather fortunate, because the senior wives, Ha and Xuan are quite supportive and protective of her. She also makes fast friends with Xuan’s daughters.

Director Mayfair brings us a wonderfully lush and evocative film that is also very steamy. As May, Nguyen Phuong Tra My looks distressingly young and vulnerable, but she is also convincing when her character starts to make some cold, hard decisions. Other actors are also quite good.

The film is a visual feast to watch. is absolutely gorgeous. Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj uses the rain forest backdrop and luxuriates in the trappings of  the 19th Century. It is hard to watch the tragedy as it inevitably transpires, but Mayfair keeps the viewers on the edge of their seats and makes them want to be in this world, despite its social inequities. 

The scenes of sex and desire are treated with restraint, using juxtaposition to evoke mood so that silkworm caterpillars supply the disturbing emotion of May’s wedding night. The silkworm life cycle is returned to repeatedly through the film and we see that their busy existence is in many ways as futile and for the sole profit of others as that of the wives.

About Film Movement

 Founded in 2002 as one of the first-ever subscription film services with its DVD-of-the-Month club, Film Movement is now a North American distributor of award-winning independent and foreign films based in New York City. It has released more than 250 feature films and shorts culled from prestigious film festivals worldwide.  Film Movement’s theatrical releases include American independent films, documentaries, and foreign art house titles. Its catalog includes titles by directors such as Hirokazu Kore-eda, Maren Ade, Jessica Hausner, Andrei Konchalovsky, Andrzej Wajda, Diane Kurys, Ciro Guerra and Melanie Laurent. In 2015, Film Movement launched its reissue label Film Movement Classics, featuring new restorations released theatrically as well as on Blu-ray and DVD, including films by such noted directors as Eric Rohmer, Peter Greenaway, Bille August, Marleen Gorris, Takeshi Kitano, Arturo Ripstein, King Hu, Sergio Corbucci and Ettore Scola. For more information, please visit www.filmmovement.com. Visit www.filmmovementplus.com for more information about Film Movement Plus, the new subscription streaming service from Film Movement. 

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