The Third Wife – Film Review by Aisling Foster
Director & Writer: Ash Mayfair
Rural Vietnam in the late nineteenth century, a landscape of steamy waterways and thrusting bamboo forests where nature’s relentless round of life, death and decay gives a subtle warning of what is to come. A boat glides silently out of the mist, carrying a wide-eyed fourteen-year-old to the home of a wealthy landowner. We will learn nothing of May’s background, only that, as a third wife, her role is to produce a male heir, something the spoilt young man’s first and second marriages have failed to do.
At first, in the days before the wedding, her fiancé remains surprisingly aloof, showing no apparent curiosity for his new bride. But the two wives welcome her like a child, encouraging her to play with her young ‘nieces’ and giving few hints of the secrets and tensions within the family nor the duties of the marriage bed. From the few questions she asks, it is clear that May has dreams of love, but when her husband violates her on their wedding night, youth and innocence are dead. Her new home is now a luxurious prison, her worth no more than a breeding animal on her husband’s estate. Even her pregnancy, when it happens, is imbued with a dread of failure and death. Like the other women and unwanted daughters of the household, May knows her life must be a matter of constant negotiation within a pitiless male world. So, when a rebellious child announces she will be a man when she grows up, the women only smile, knowing there is no escape. That realization is made horribly real in the treatment of another very young girl, delivered as bride for the landowner’s brother, for whom rejection by both her new husband and the father who refuses to take her back leaves death as the only option.
This is Ash Mayfair’s first film. Born in Vietnam and educated in the UK and the USA her script mixes polite silence and Buddhist symbolism with disturbing (almost pornographic) scenes of sexuality and pain. Slow camerawork and minimal dialogue are reminiscent of works like The Piano; but with stories based on the director’s old family memories, one longs for more information, for her carefully guarded characters to reveal more about themselves than whatever a close-up can show or even in one brief and somewhat unconvincing scene of lesbian love. Indeed, the theme of female sexual exploitation feels a bit heavy-handed at times, but knowing what we do about today’s third-world sex trade – and Vietnam’s large part in it – The Third Wife certainly has a point to make. Plus ça change.