“The Third Wife” (M) *** and a half
IN its late-19th-century Vietnamese rural environment, Ash Mayfair’s debut film as a writer and director after a career in short films is sensitive and visually lovely.
At age 14, May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) has been married to a wealthy Vietnamese land-owner Hung (Long Le Vu). May is pretty, innocent, vulnerable and, above all, a survivor.
Coming to the new chapter in life, May has first wife Ha (Nu Yên-Khê Tran) and second wife Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya) to help steer her through womanhood, motherhood and sexual pleasure.
The film gently takes May from defloration to motherhood. A blood-stained sheet represents consummation; a growing belly shows no time was wasted for conception. Marriage brings her to a comfortable life with a single goal – to bear a son. As time passes with less and less to do thanks to servants, May’s eyes and mind begin to gradually wander. Her body discovers new sensations, not all unpleasant, some learned with guidance from the older wives, others without it.
Hung’s property resembles a small self-supporting village. A sense of innocence pervades the household. It’s a male-dominated society in which the adult women of the family live in a kind of independence governed by customs that influence many daily activities.
“The Third Wife” tells about people for whom life has few complexities and simple-enough rules in a beautiful rural environment. Not clearly defining its target audience, it invites people with the wit to go along to see it to take from it as little or as much as they choose.