Gently dipping us into the long ago and far away past, Ash Mayfair’s directorial debut brings an intimate immediacy to the re-creation of rural Vietnam in the late 19th century. Though it’s almost painterly, in the pellucid watercolor palette of DP Chananun Chotrungroj’s glistening bamboo-green, aloe-scented imagery, and authentic to its period setting down to the quietest silken detail, by focusing with unwavering empathy on the interior life of teenage bride May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), the remarkable “The Third Wife” feels newborn and ineffably modern. Winner of prizes at both the San Sebastian and Toronto festivals, this is the rare debut that derives its freshness not from inexperience but from a balance between compassion and restraint that most filmmakers take decades to achieve.
May, young as a droplet clinging to a leaf, arrives to her new life by ceremonial canoe with her new family, including her landowner husband’s two other wives, arrayed before her in an intimidating tableau. This scene, like much of the rest of this impressionistic, unhurried story, plays without dialogue: a great deal of the emotional communication of the film is carried in glances and glimpses, in the softly plangent strings of Ton That An’s spare, elegant score, and the pattering, scuffing and quick, short breaths of Eduoard Morin’s sound design.
May is quickly inducted into her wifely duties, but Mayfair’s screenplay, honed but not overworked during its long passage through a host of workshops including Spike Lee’s Production Fund and NYU’s Purple List, is careful not to overstate the drama of her wedding night. More pertinent to May’s bright, curious attitude than the fertility ritual whereby her husband Hung (Le Vu Long) slurps a raw egg yolk from her navel and then thrusts painfully on top of her for a few minutes, more even than the display of the bloodied sheets the next day, are the quotidian rhythms of life on the isolated complex that will comprise her entire universe: playing with the younger kids, carrying dishes, fetching water and caring for her aged father-in-law.
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And most important of all, there is her relationship with Hung’s two other wives. There’s the watchful, elegant Ha played by the stunning Tran Nu Yen Khe (wife of artistic advisor Tran Anh Hung, whose “Scent of the Green Papaya” is one of the touchpoints here). And there’s the sexually frank second wife Xuan (Mai Thu Huong), who, May discovers to her shock and confused arousal, is having a clandestine affair with Son (Nguyen Thanh Tam), Hung’s adult son with first wife Ha. It’s hard to tell quite where the fluttering desire of May’s sexual awakening will alight, but it has little to do with her husband — much like “The Third Wife” generally, which is content to sideline the menfolk while constantly nudging our attention onto the women.
Innocent as she is, May quickly perceives the wifely pecking order, and when she gets pregnant, innately understands that giving Hung a boy will secure her in his favor. And so, while she comes of age in this borderline paradisiacal environment of verdant fields and lush, dripping foliage, she also learns that as much as the women must cooperate in a sort of pliant, companionable domesticity, they are also in biological and sexual competition with one another — a fact thrown into high relief by the arrival of another equally young wife for Son, whom he rejects. It’s a lesson that manifests subtly in Nguyen Phuong Tra My’s transfixing performance, in the faintest hardening of May’s eyes.
These times of ours are not conducive to delicacy, and “The Third Wife” is so graceful in its movements it might seem an indulgence, too luxurious and too long-view attuned to the life-cycle rhythms of birth and death, calving and slaughter to have much of a pointed message. But despite its seeming placidity, there is something urgent that runs deep beneath its still surface. In May and in Ha and Xuan, there are all the women and girls of the past who’ve been ignored, abused, forced into competition with one another, made to endure a degradation of spirit and a commodification of body so complete it should have resulted in their annihilation, like silkworms steaming alive inside their cocoons. But with “The Third Wife,” new talent Mayfair reclaims just a few of those silvery strands from the neglect of history and weaves them into a film so sensuous we can lose ourselves in it, but so vividly real we might also be able to find ourselves there.