The Third Wife (Vietnam, 2018) [VIFF 2018]

Ash Mayfair brings Vietnamese cinema to the world stage with her striking feature debut The Third Wife. While the nuances of 19th century Vietnam culture might not be fully appreciated by most viewers (myself included), the film’s critique on how society views female imprisonment is unfortunately still a universal truth in many parts of the modern world.

The Third Wife starts off by introducing audiences to its titular character, May (newcomer Nguyen Phuong Tra My), who is a 14 year-old sent off across the waters to become the third wife of a wealthy landowner. She immediately bonds with her two counterparts (Nu Yên-Khê Tran and Mai Thu Huong Maya), and becomes accustomed to her role within this patriarchal family. As the film unfolds, May becomes pregnant and realizes the preferential treatment of the male gender in the world she has always been in. While she prays for her unborn child to be a boy in hopes of appeasing the people around her, she also faces her own inner desires that may ultimately put everything else into jeopardy.

The above description is purposefully vague, as giving any more detail would spoil a film that is better served with an element of mystique. It’s not to say that The Third Wife is a film of mystery with multiple plot twists, but the film does carry an overall tone that leans to the thriller genre. And it does this in an almost subversive way, with a subtle soundtrack and sparse dialogue that keeps audiences guessing. All this creates a mysterious atmosphere that is both engaging and appropriate given the amount of secrecy many of these characters hold onto.

The strong atmospheric tone of the film is immediately apparent, even from the very first few scenes. When The Third Wife begins, it almost feels like a silent film with colour. Mayfair really approaches this film with a classical sense of filmmaking, framing every single scene with such detailed attention. With such painterly imagery, every scene could probably be captured and framed on the wall of a historical museum. Mayfair doesn’t use a lot of flashy camera movement or editing, instead repeating lingering shots where the mise-en-scène almost becomes a character itself.

This approach ultimately results in an aesthetic that is concurrent with an older time period, while clashing with the almost modern day criticisms of how the female gender is treated. I’m not a scholar in gender studies, so won’t attempt to delve into the complexities of Mayfair’s pointed dissection of the many struggles females endured in 19th century Vietnam. But even as a casual observer of the world, it’s clear that the film’s sociopolitical commentary isn’t solely isolated to the past.

What can be said is that Mayfair creates a tale of female imprisonment that should frustrate viewers for obvious reasons, yet also provides a constellation to this unfair 19th century world through powerful characters. This isn’t a fairytale, and each of the three wives finds their own freedom within the confines of the times they are in. Whether or not they are ultimately successful is debatable, but that’s also intentional. The Third Wife doesn’t seek to provide any definitive answers, and allows viewers to perhaps adapt the film’s commentary to their own lived experiences.

For a film with minimal dialogue and a rather minimalistic screenplay, The Third Wife is well served by a team of extremely talented actresses. Nguyen debut performance as May is layered with many levels of complexity, especially given the maturity her character develops toward the end of the film. It’s almost certain that her career will take off after this film. Tran and Mai help anchor a trio of women who have every right to be resentful of the society they live in, yet show a level of restrained anger that lingers on even as the film ends.

The Third Wife demonstrates that Mayfair is a potential master behind the camera, and has a true sense of artistic imagery. When it comes to cinema’s growing need for more female voices, seeing someone like Mayfair create such a powerful debut is exactly what the medium needs right now.

The Third Wife is showing on October 9 and 11 at the Vancouver International Film Festival.