The difficulties of adolescence, forbidden love, and the oppressive patriarchy thread Ash Mayfair’s directorial debut The Third Wife, which charts the experience of child marriage in 19th century Vietnam. Even in such a suffocating setting, Mayfair’s feminist lens and patient approach gives her young protagonist the breathing room to explore her womanhood, crafting a profound coming-of-age tale in the process.
Inspired by Mayfair’s own family history, fourteen-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) enters into an arranged marriage with a rich landowner (Long Le Vu), joining his two other wives Ha (Tran Nu Yen Khe) and Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya) and their children. May quickly learns that she is expected to bear a son, and in a bid to gain her husband’s respect, becomes pregnant in the hopes of producing a boy. Accompanied by the older wives, The Third Wife traces May’s journey towards motherhood.
With such a premise, it would be easy for The Third Wife to victimise its female characters with brutal misogyny à la Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or to emphasise power struggles through in-fighting between the wives like in Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991). Instead, Mayfair opts for a feminist angle, focusing on how such limiting circumstances can give rise to uniquely female bonds. Utilising lingering shots and soft, naturally-lit scenes of the wives bathing and picnicking, the film’s focus on the day-to-day evokes an almost slice-of-life feel for long stretches, building up our understanding of the women, their ugly circumstances and the trusting relationship they’ve fostered with each other. It is in these moments that May truly begins to navigate her emerging womanhood amongst the companionship of the other wives, as seen in an early light-hearted scene where the older wives divulge details of their sex lives to May. The delicacy with which Mayfair and cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj (Popaye) shoot these moments contrasts starkly to how they portray the largely sidelined, arranged romantic relationships ― which are often shot in darkened interiors. These bleaker moments lack the sincerity or grace of the film’s sisterhood, serving only to highlight the sexism of May’s surroundings, with one particularly morbid subplot highlighting the reputational and societal burden placed on young brides.
While the film eventually casts its net wider to consider the emotional impact of arranged marriage on young men, this subplot feels like a disruption to the overall narrative thrust and flow established by May’s perspective. Although Mayfair admirably rejects an antagonistic portrayal of all men by considering the perspective of Ha’s son (Nguyen Thanh Tam) mid-way through, the wives are ultimately so much more complex and engaging that I couldn’t help but wait for the film to return to their stories.
Thankfully, the film finds its footing again in May’s journey, and, in doing so, highlights one of The Third Wife’s most shining qualities ― newcomer Nguyen Phuong Tra My. Perfectly matching the film’s understated tone, Nguyen’s portrayal of May’s coming-of-age is impressive in its depth, deftly reflecting the emotional transformation one undergoes through adolescence. Initially naive of her actual power and of the trials of adulthood, Nguyen’s early scenes are filled with the energy and spark of a child, while her longing glances at her crush convey all the infatuation of a teenager’s first love. Navigating the precipice of childhood’s end when being romanced by her husband, Nguyen effortlessly balances outward child-like confidence with an underlying sense of trepidation. As she crosses the threshold into figurative adulthood, the opportunity for Nguyen’s acting versatility opens up even further, as May tearfully comes to terms with the crushing realisation of what little freedom she really has.
Nguyen’s believability as May is further aided by the actress’s age, being just 13-years-old during shooting. This aspect of Nguyen’s casting has created controversy in Vietnam, and given the storyline, it’s impossible to not feel some discomfort at the ethical questions raised by this decision. But both on-set and on-screen Mayfair has taken great care to avoid sexualising her young lead. In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Mayfair said Nguyen “insisted to her family that she take this role”; Nguyen’s mother also released a statement saying that they were consulted on all scenes and filming practices before shooting. This careful consultation and thoughtful process is reflected narrative-wise too: the film is more interested in exploring May’s emotional maturation, with Mayfair minimising her suggestive scenes while not denying the character any curiosity about her sexuality (a cornerstone of the coming-of-age genre). Mayfair and editor Julie Béziau also utilise visual symbolism in the place of more explicit moments, such as cutting away during May’s wedding night to silkworms writhing beneath the moonlight. By choosing to abstract The Third Wife’s most ethically-challenging scenes through sensitive framing and editing, Mayfair and Béziau simultaneously avoid exploiting their subject matter with needless shock factor, while also refusing to sanitise the real history of their story.
The entire film’s structure, in fact, revolves around the use of wildlife symbolism, with May’s accelerated coming-of-age punctuated by shots of silkworms throughout their lifecycle. It’s a heavy-handed metaphor for sure, and a sudden third-act exercise in visual poetry does veer over the edge of empty pretension. However, this is only a slight and forgivable misstep given the strong impression and identity Mayfair and Chotrungroj’s visuals bestow upon the film overall. From the first 10 minutes which wordlessly depicts May’s entire wedding night, The Third Wife’s aesthetic confidence is striking and immersive; the hazy mountains and gentle rivers which bind May’s secluded world take on an ethereal quality under Mayfair’s eye. Meanwhile, more intimate framing and warm hues during May’s formative interactions with the wives imbue a personal atmosphere, keeping the film’s non-judgemental, realist attitude from feeling completely emotionally detached.
Besides the film’s assured, consistent visuals, it is Mayfair’s thoughtful storytelling which primarily makes The Third Wife such an exciting debut. Mayfair has stated that she “could probably spend [her] whole life” writing about womanhood; her two upcoming projects ― a war-time romance and a love story between a boxer and transgender woman ― shows that the writer-director is far from finished telling stories from a female perspective. Given how well Mayfair’s visual lyricism and feminine sensibility merges in The Third Wife’s subversively delicate tale of female adolescence, I am eager to see if, and how, future projects display such a harmonious union of Mayfair’s strengths. In the meantime, the writer-director has a surprisingly confident debut in her hands which cements her tactful promise ― infusing a controversial, historical tale with a modern, universal sensibility.
The Third Wife is now showing in Australian cinemas.