The Third Wife

 

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A landmark film from Vietnam draws on personal perspective to show what it means to be a woman in a man’s world.

   
Third Wife, The

The baby-makers: the 13-year-old Nguyen Phuong Tra My (left)

 

There are many reasons to applaud The Third Wife. For a start, Vietnamese films that reach the West are a rare breed. Notwithstanding the Hollywood epics that have glorified the Vietnam war, what remains are largely French co-productions. However, The Third Wife is the genuine article. Being released in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, it marks the directorial debut of the Ho Chi Minh City-born Ash Mayfair. And she’s a ‘she.’ Inspired by her own family’s history, the film tells the story of a 14-year-old child bride who is wed to a silk merchant in an arranged marriage. He, Hung (Long Le Vu), already has two wives but has been cursed with only daughters to carry on the family line. So, much rests on the ability of May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) to produce a male heir, something she prays for desperately.

 

The film was withdrawn from Vietnamese cinemas for involving the 13-year-old My in intimate scenes with her older co-stars. Yet The Third Wife could not be more discreet, relying heavily on implication to carry the narrative forward. What is genuinely disturbing is the gender imbalance in a patriarchal society, in which women are merely tolerated as servants, sexual objects and baby makers. When May is finally introduced to the bed chamber of her ‘master’, he insists that she crawls towards him on all fours. Mayfair presents Hung as a passive, almost invisible figure, focusing instead on the daily rituals of the servants, wives and their daughters.

 

Mayfair has a fine eye for cinematic detail, but sometimes the film’s prettiness detracts from the story’s naturalism, and hence its drama. All the women here, both child and adult, are preternaturally beautiful, as is the surrounding countryside of this idyllic rural backwater of 19th century Vietnam. On one level, the film wants to drench the viewer in the sort of sensual excess that characterised the soft porn of David Hamilton in the 1970s, whereas a note of stark realism might have been more effective. Nonetheless, Mayfair drives her point home with pointed restraint, the facts speaking for themselves. In the age of HeForShe, this should rightly raise the hackles of feminists everywhere.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Tran Nu Yen Khe, Mai Thu Huong, Nguyen Phuong Tra My, Nguyen Nhu Quynh, Le Vu Long, Nguyen Thanh Tam, Lam Thanh My, Mai Cat Vi, Nguyen Hong Chuong, Bui Trung Anh.

 

Dir Ash Mayfair, Pro Ash Mayfair and Thi Bich Ngoc Tran, Screenplay Ash Mayfair, Ph Chananun Chotrungroj, Pro Des Do Trong An, Ed Julie Béziau, Music An Ton That.

 

An Nam Productions/Mayfair Pictures/Three Colors Productions-Eureka Entertainment.

91 mins. Vietnam. 2018. DVD Rel: 19 August 2019. Cert. 15.