Ash Mayfair’s feminist film The Third Wife is most definitely going to evoke feels of Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden throughout due to how tonally similar the films are. The majestic cinematography of both the films along with the concept of exploring female sexuality also evokes similar feelings. That being said, Mayfair makes a brilliant debut with a film that was inspired by the history of her family in Vietnam.
The Third Wife is the story of 14-year-old Mây (Nguyễn Phương Trà My) who is given away in an arranged marriage and becomes the third wife of a landlord. She realizes that giving birth to a boy means a high status in the household. This becomes a possibility when she is found to be pregnant. The film deals primarily with the three different wives and how they sustain in the household, along with exploring female sexuality by observing the tragedies of forbidden love in the household and the eternal quest in our minds about settling for the culture and norm or vying for our own personal freedom.
Mayfair took on a very daunting task but has somehow successfully managed to combine surreal visual poetry with social commentary where on one hand the lush portrayal of a rich household in 19th century along with the landscape amazes you, and on the other you are immediately made to notice and explore the several red flags that the director wants us to think about, the societal red flags that not only existed then but also are very relevant even now. She points out the different unethical traditions that still exist in our society like forced polygamous and child marriages and arranged marriages.
Much of The Third Wife focuses on Mây and the different change in roles that she goes through throughout the course of the film.
She begins the film as a child but soon has to take on the roles of a lover, a wife, and eventually a mother. Being just a fourteen-year-old, she has to tackle all of these roles while dealing with her struggle for personal freedom and her fantasies, as she’s sexually attracted towards Xuân (Mai Thu Hường), the landlord’s second wife. Vietnam has been a country that has always preferred tradition, community and history over personal independence and the director wanted to portray how the crushing of personal freedom leads to devastating effects. It shows the wrongs of the society not only in the form of Mây but also through other characters like Son, the only son of the landlord who vehemently rejects the idea of marrying someone he doesn’t know only to have his requests fall on deaf ears.
Whether at present or in the past, society has managed to oppress women in some form or the other. The women in the film are shown to be only as useful as their vagina and womb. The landlord Ha goes from one wife to another every night to have sex with whoever he pleases and the ones who eventually give birth to a son are given more respect by the rest of the family. The oppression is clear when during a dinner table discussion of how to spend the money they would potentially gain from selling a calf, instead of buying gowns for the girls of Xuân, the family members decide to either buy Son a horse or save money for his marriage.
Ash Mayfair’s immense understanding and care of the themes she was dealing with is evident when you watch the film. Through the film, she raises her voice against the oppression of women that have now existed for centuries. She points out the wrongs of the society by showing the consequences these lives face when these societal norms are imposed on them. Her mastery is only proven in how she uses minimal dialogue to tell the story mostly through visual cues. This is where cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj must get immense credit for her work. She captures the grandeur of the old Vietnam and leaves you mesmerized. But it is not just the landscape where Chotrungroj’s expertise is visible, but it’s also visible in how she perfectly focuses on the characters and the small visible cues as per Mayfair’s script whenever required.
Nguyễn Phương Trà My, who plays Mây performs her role with sheer brilliance. Her role was the most important in the film, as suggested by the title, and she does a fantastic job. From showing Mây’s dark sides when she wishes bad for one of the other wives to exploring and portraying the tremendous ethical and moral confusion in her mind that she goes through due to having sexual fantasies about her husband’s second wife, Phương Trà My is sublime in her craft. Each of her co-actors, whether it is the ones who played the wives or the ones who played the daughters, had a significant role to play in the overall story of the film and they all produced good performances individually to shape up the director’s vision.
The Third Wife would be a big hit at different festivals worldwide and Mayfair’s film would remain etched in the mind of whoever watches it whether for the beautiful cinematography or the immensely deep social commentary or both.