THE THIRD WIFE is an exquisite and cohesive directorial debut from Vietnamese filmmaker Ash Mayfair, who presents a calibrated commentary on female unfulfillment.
In 19th-century Vietnam, 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) is about to become the third wife of a wealthy landowner, Hung (Le Vu Long). She probably didn’t have a say in the marriage and was engaged soon after menstruating for the first time. At her husband’s residence, after a sumptuous ceremony, May is welcomed by the other two wives: the wary and severe Ha (Tran Nu Yen Khe) and the sensuous and maternal Xuan (Mai Thu Huong). At times they teasingly share their marital advice with May. Locked in such a secluded yet structured space, May learns fast that there’s only one way to secure her position as her master’s favourite: giving birth to a male heir. But things don’t always go as planned. The young woman finds her own sexual awakening through unexplored desires while also discovering Xuan’s illicit affair with Ha’s son, Son (Nguyen Thanh Tam).
In THE THIRD WIFE, women exist as a commodity to be traded when the time is ripe – their worth being measured on their ranking as someone else’s wife. Being the first spouse is then perceived as a privilege, although this can feel nullified at times. Matriarchy in the household is only an illusion, as men are and always will be in control. Hence, polygamy translates into hierarchical conflict, as women are confined to the limited dynamics of fake power.
“Ash Mayfair’s elegant yet sultry debut plunges into the intricacies of female desire in a male-dominant world that crushes even a person’s most basic right: freedom.”
Within this framework, Mayfair’s concern with this outdated structure, whose basic mechanisms still linger on in today’s society, is not only limited to women. Exemplified by Hung’s firstborn son’s tragic infatuation with Xuan, men also lack any escape route from the expectations of a codified society. Marrying someone for love isn’t the norm, but social taboos must be avoided altogether. It’s painful, though, that for a man’s inadequacy a young woman has to pay. Untouched by her new husband and despised by her own father, Lien (Lam Thanh My), May is the innocent victim of this cruel world.
As naive as it may sound, the East-Asian aesthetics of images is peculiarly fascinating. In books as in films, words may often be sparse, almost unnecessary. Characters rely on meaningful gestures while artists – writers and filmmakers alike – turn to nature to convey their messages. Distancing ourselves from words, ambiguity somehow gains importance in the equation. Although peaceful and calm on the surface, these images often hide an emotional turmoil stirring and shaking the characters’ interior worlds. With its many shots framing placid, natural landscapes ultimately opening up to death and decay, THE THIRD WIFE is no exception. Ash Mayfair’s elegant yet sultry debut plunges into the intricacies of female desire in a male-dominant world that crushes even a person’s most basic right: freedom. Gorgeously shot in an ethereal light and a dreamy colour palette, the film abdicates most of its dialogue to indulge in an extremely slow-paced, almost listless, story that adds to its own charm.
Basked in natural light and so overtly feminine in its delicacy, THE THIRD WIFE may not appeal to everyone for its decisive reliance on stunning imagery rather than a compelling plot. Evoking the same atmosphere of Park Chan-Wook’s latest tale of regained agency in an oppressive, patriarchal environment, Mayfair’s debut feature may lack the South Korean director’s stunts but thrives in its atmospheric shots of passing beauty. Reaching a tragic yet almost cathartic resolution, the film’s poetic appeal stands as the everlasting evidence of Mayfair’s promising future.