The Third Wife is intimate filmmaking in service of a new perspective
I want to go to Vietnam. If The Third Wife is any indication, the country is soul-stirring in its beauty. Writer/director Ash Mayfair is very aware of how striking the landscape is and uses it to its fullest potential in telling this delicately plotted tale of a rural 19th century community, and the women who are quietly oppressed within it. While its slow pace may prove difficult for some there’s no denying the emotion on display. This tale is one based in truth, and the window through which we are given license to witness it is one of beauty, restraint, and a fascinating lack of judgment. It’s via this strange empathy that we as viewers are made to follow the increasingly distraught central character, but by the same method we are given license to witness a foreign world of the past...a past that in many ways is distressingly similar to our present.
May is fourteen years old. She has recently arrived at a village where she is to be married to Hung, a wealthy landowner. May is his third wife (that’s the title!!!!) and as such, it is her job to produce a son with him. His first wife has already given him a son (named Son, ha!) and his second has only birthed daughters. May prays at night that the child she conceives with her husband turns out to be male, as this is the best way to remain in her spouse’s good graces. During her gestation period, May befriends Hung’s other wives, Ha and Xuan, with whom she completes a delectable trio of personalities, each working to assist one another, with just enough distance to maintain self-preservation.
The lessons Ha and Xuan give young May aren’t easy to hear in 2019. Sex hurts? Pretend you like it! Got goals? Too bad, this is your life now! The passive ways in which Ha and Xuan seem to have accepted their place in society is heartbreaking from a modern lens. It’s easy to read their complacency as an insidious form of Stockholm Syndrome resultant from a deeply patriarchal society. Sure, these women seem happy, but are they thriving? Not even a little.
This changes for May as she develops a sexual attraction to Xuan. Mayfair doesn’t explicitly make any declarations about May’s sexuality beyond this, and frankly, it doesn’t matter. To me, May’s desires and their application to the plot feel less about her being a burgeoning lesbian, and more of her discovering hardcoded desires that her lot in life simply will not facilitate. A theme at play here cautions of the dangers of repression, and the ease through which someone can find themselves hiding from their truth.
“Just pretend that you like it, so that he will like it,” May is told. “One day, you will like it for real.”
Mayfair uses the setting to weave symbolic imagery into the plot. A cocoon represents transformation borne of restriction, flowers on a river’s surface evoke the passive flow of the complacent traveler, a hypnotic waterfall represents the gravity-like yearning for expression found within the hearts of all humans. These images are shot with a stunning clarity, and even if you find yourself at a distance from the tale, a possibility given the pace, The Third Wife is more than worth seeing on the confident visual craft alone.
Nguyen Phuong Tra My shines as May, which is no small task given the sexual/emotional frankness of the role and the fact that this actress is still a child. Hers is a quiet, gentle exterior, yet we can always see her gears turning. Even in a restrictive situation such as this, you get the sense that May just might find a path more suited to her needs. She just might be the cog that rattles the machine. It’s a powerful performance, if slight, that few actors her age could pull off without leaning into twee sensibilities, or worse, making the the more lurid angles feel exploitative. Certainly, we are meant to feel uncomfortable when this child loses her virginity to an adult, but it’s handled so artfully and performed so well (as part of a compelling fertility ritual, no less) that we must reckon with it from the inside. This is normal to the parties involved, and by bringing us into it, rather than treating us at outsiders, Mayfair gets considerable mileage in depicting such things with unguarded honesty. Instead of parsing the individual motives, we contend with the social forces at large that provide a home for these behaviors. It’s May who functions as the outsider, not us.
Simultaneous to May’s accelerated journey into adulthood, we witness the ways that other members of the community push back against the powers that be. Affairs occur, as does resistance to betrothal. Corporal punishment does little to sway some folks of their desires. In perhaps the most emotionally stunning scene, a simple “no” is lobbed at a character who doesn’t typically meet resistance, and the way it (quietly) plays out says so much with so little.
Perhaps that’s the biggest strength of The Third Wife. This is not a movie of big performances, big plot revelations, or big set-pieces. This is intimate filmmaking in service of a small plot. But the thematic weight of what transpires sneakily finds its way through, and before you know it, you’ve been transported to another place, another time. From here we can look at our true selves from a different angle, potentially emerging from our cocoon with a fresh new perspective.
The Third Wife opens in Philly theaters today.