Written and directed by Ash Mayfair
Starring Le Vu Long, Tran Nu Yen Khe, Nguyen Thanh Tam and Mai Thu Huong Maya
MPAA rating: R for sexual content
Running time: 1 hour and 36 minutes
by Stacey Osbeck
Deep in the rural mountains of 19th century Vietnam, May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), at only fourteen, meets her wealthy husband, Hung (Le Vu Long), on the day of their wedding. May is his third wife, not a replacement for wives long past, but a third meaning in addition to. The first wife, Ha (Tran Nu Yen Khe), bore Hung a male heir, Son (Nguyen Thanh Tam), who is now a young man. No others boys have been born since Son, which is why May is here. The second wife, Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya), has only produced daughters and cannot yet be considered truly part of the clan. This family dynamic acts as the foundation on which writer-director Ash Mayfair builds her feature debut, The Third Wife.
A kaleidoscope of pastels paint daily life, their vibrancy subdued by a veil of white. A few shades of the color palate noticeably come through in full saturation: green of the natural world, red for a prosperous marriage and for blood, and yellow, the bright hue of deadly nightshade.
Pregnancy initially brings May joy which later shifts to an undercurrent of quietly building anxiety. Will she bear a child of value, or a girl? As the months drag on, this question hangs dark over all three wives.
Everything in this world is subtle, therefore any indiscretion or deviation from it must be subtler still. Out in the night, May catches a glimpse of movement. A mysterious hooded figure, lantern in hand, sets out for the woods. Keeping a safe distance, the young third wife follows. There in the secrecy of the bamboo forest, May witnesses Xuan, the second wife, and Son indulging in the pleasures of the flesh. May’s wedding night involved a fertility ritual, but no foreplay, setting the priorities of wedded copulation. Here, observing the forbidden tryst in the woods, May awakens to the idea of sex as an act of mutual pleasure, as exciting and passionate, as well, sexy.
While her husband’s emotions vary between stoicism and disappointment, May enjoys a broad range of feelings from the other wives: kindness, closeness, worry, comradery, humor, love. So it would seem natural if May wanted to break the bounds of her small world and experience physical affection she would turn to one of the women. After sneaking off to watch Xuan in the woods over time May has developed a crush. Who she has been inspired by, she now desires.
Xuan has her own troubles bubbling up. Son, now of a marrying age, detests the idea of wedding someone he has never met. He starts to go off the rails and professes his love for the second wife through the window of her room during daylight. His brazenness grows increasingly frightening. As the only male heir, there are no stakes in his world. Xuan, bearing no boys, is still not even a proper part of the family. For such a monumental trespass, she can only imagine the punishment for not only herself, but the loyal servants who covered for her and, most vulnerable in this situation, her precious daughters. Where Son can only see the yearnings of his own heart, Xuan sees the ripple effect of consequences.
As infuriating as Son’s man-child tantrums are over his upcoming arranged marriage, it’s hard not to feel for him. As wealthy as his family is, his one desire is something money can’t buy. He longs to be with the woman he loves.
The pacing is slower than perhaps the story calls for. However, if your only exposure to cinematic Vietnam involves Americans in camo trudging through the jungle to the beat of blasting rock ‘n’ roll, The Third Wife will offer a refreshingly different movie-going experience.