When cinema tackles heavy subject matter, it takes a level of maturity, care and responsibility to handle it. In less-skilled hands, such films can often culminate in gratuitous cinema that is engineered to cause controversy amongst critics and audiences, and in most cases the storm surrounding such films is far more interesting than the film itself. With Vietnamese drama ‘The Third Wife’, the controversy storm surrounding the age of its lead star (and the threats her mother received for letting her then 12-year-old star in the film) fizzles into background noise while you watch it; it manages to be a powerful, beautifully crafted experience that is both artistic and painful to watch in equal measure.
‘The Third Wife’ opens in an ominous, gracefully cinematic manner, with a symmetrically framed scene following our 14-year-old protagonist May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) as she makes her way by boat to an uncertain future. She looks up and breaks the fourth wall at least eight minutes before the film features any dialogue, and yet with one determined, fearful glance, we get a glimpse into who May is straight away. The 1.66:1 aspect ratio ensures that audiences cannot escape May’s face, which fills the whole frame. She is scared, and the audience should be too.
That uncertain future, as we soon find out, takes the form of a marriage to silk plantation owner Hung (Le Vu Long) – his third, as per the title. Through the big sister-like advice of the other two wives (Nguyen Nhu Quynh Le and Mai Thu Huong), May soon learns that her best chance at social status on the plantation is to give birth to a boy. They also provide May with advice on sex and growing up. It is sweet to see how, despite their older age, the other wives treat May as an equal, but also unsettling to see them advise a 14-year-old girl on how to masturbate. As May falls pregnant, the second and third acts of the film diverge from her story to explore how the social and matrimonial landscape on the plantation affects those around her – and how it can destroy the lives of those she loves.
Despite the sexual and patriarchal undertones of May’s story, first-time director Ash Mayfair never once lets her storytelling or her camera veer into exploitation. The progression of May’s pivotal deflowering and subsequent sexual awakening is mirrored by imagery of the life of a silkworm, cutting away at more explicit points to shots of the worms. This confident directorial choice is artistic to a fault but doesn’t quite stick to the landing its going for. Even to have just provided one slightly longer close-up of May’s face during these scenes, the audience would have a bit more insight into how she is feeling, instead of relying on an ominous score during a silkworm shot to do all the heavy lifting (especially since, after that wonderful opening close-up, the audience have already been up close and personal with May). It’s not sugar-coating the story in any way, but by cutting away so quickly manages to undercut the severity of such scenes.
Director Ash Mayfair presents May’s story with such grace and delicacy that it could only come from a Vietnamese woman.
Accompanying such exquisite shot composition is Mayfair’s decision to present the film in faded colours. It really lends to the authenticity of telling an older story, as it is loosely based on Mayfair’s own family. The film has a very physical presence – the camera lingers on hands, hair, breasts (not the protagonist’s, of course). The sensual nature of the film is heightened through the use of minimal dialogue, both by placing the focus on bodies and not words, but also managing to make moments of dialogue all the more powerful. For a film where a male is dictating the majority of the choices over the protagonist’s body, the experience feels inherently female.
Of course, in the wrong hands, a film about a pregnant 14-year-old bride could have gone very wrong very quickly. However, Mayfair knocks it out of the park; she presents May’s story with such grace and delicacy that it could only come from a Vietnamese woman. There is a respect for the subject matter observed, all while exposing the horror of the situation at hand. It’s intoxicating, heart-wrenching, and an experience I can’t wait to take in again.