Director: Ash Mayfair
Runtime: 96 mins | Genre: Drama
Ash Mayfair’s The Third Wife opens with 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) in a red canoe, traveling to meet her future husband, Hung (Le Vu Long), an older, richer landowner. Their arranged marriage is a source of uneasiness for this young Vietnamese girl living in the 19th century, unmistakable in the opening close-ups of her face, whose solemnness points to a heroic struggle to be compliant with the patriarchal demands placed on the girls and women of this society. She puts a hand in the surrounding water, almost as if she were trying to calm her nerves. And upon arriving at Hung’s abode, a wide shot of Hung’s gathered family gives us a hint of the tough road ahead of her.
After the culmination of the marriage festivities, we witness May and Hung consummate their union, in a scene that’s especially queasy if you know that Nguyen was 12 when she filmed it. The moment is preceded by a depiction of a traditional Vietnamese practice in which the groom swallows an egg yolk placed over the wife’s belly button. Later, May finds camaraderie in Hung’s two older wives, Ha (Nu Yên-Khê Tran) and Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya), from whom she learns how to perform her wifely duties. Which is to say that Mayfair, for better and worse, is devoted to educating her viewers about the stifled lives and dreams of so many women from this time period.
One night, May walks outside to go to the bathroom and sees that Xuan is walking around. May follows her and finds that Xuan is having an affair with Hung's firstborn son (Nguyễn Thành Tâm Lâm). This event would be fine if it were simply meant to show Xuan’s dissatisfaction with her current marriage, as well as the passionate love life that she’s prevented from having, but it’s crassly utilized to develop May’s character too. Upon seeing this, May realizes that she’s attracted to Xuan. Upon her return home, May starts masturbating, and a hackneyed montage—comprised of running water and May’s previous interactions with Xuan—grants this revelation of forbidden love the cheapest of poignance.
Sequences like these expose Mayfair’s overly schematic filmmaking. Attempts at advancing plot feel clumsy, and their purpose is always frustratingly obvious. When Xuan’s lover is forced to marry a girl who’s even younger than May, the scene plays out quickly. Audience members are meant to see how devastating this is to the new couple, but these characters aren’t fleshed-out beyond the unfortunate circumstances that define them, and the emotional impact that this marriage should have is clearly dead on arrival.
The hollowness of these characters and the rigid unfolding of their lives is The Third Wife’s ultimate pitfall. They stymie any immersion that is brought about by slow pacing and a subdued atmosphere, revealing the film to be little more than painterly images with shallow messages shoehorned in. That Mayfair spent ample time allowing her actors to improvise while in character is insignificant given that every person in the film acts as a simple cipher for complex ideas about patriarchal societies, women’s need for autonomy, and the desire for free expression. As a result, The Third Wife proves an apt title: it’s a simple description of May that might as well be the entirety of her character’s personhood.