Inspired by her own family’s story, Ash Mayfair’s The Third Wife is an assured directorial debut that is beyond beautiful and pristinely delicate. Having won awards at the San Sebastian, Toronto, and Chicago International Film Festivals, The Third Wife really brings attention to a new talent. Vietnamese cinema is gaining a bit of attention at the moment and The Third Wife is a great example of why that is.
Following a fourteen-year-old girl in an arranged marriage, The Third Wife is an examination of a time when women were totally subservient to men. The female characters are reduced to sex objects and mothers by the male characters, but Mayfair’s filmmaking utilises the female gaze to focus on feminine beauty and emotion rather than sex itself. It’s an incredibly sensual film, with a creeping intimacy that forms into a queer angle told through hints and secrets. The dialogue is frank in its discussion of sex, puberty, and pregnancy, all told solely through a female perspective. This is a tale told by people often ignored in our imaginings of history.
The lead actress, Nguyễn Phương Trà My, was a young teenager during filming, rather controversially given the explicit subject matter. However her performance is amazing, given how well she sells the adult struggles her character contends with. The film contains no dialogue for a very long time at first, building the setting over the story, but also emphasising the quietness of the titular wife. Her character accepts her situation, perhaps seeing it as the natural way of things. The gorgeous shots of nature that intersperse the film only re-enforce the idea of a world of rules set by a higher power. Yet The Third Wife is about how the beauty of the archaic is deceptive and the world is still filled with wrongs. The nature of arranged marriage and the lifelong consequences it has loom over the picture. The Third Wife is about quiet tension, as unfortunate events spiral out and things brew beneath the surface of the social order that’s been founded.
The Third Wife opens with a landscape shot so impressive that it could have come straight from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s immeasurably beautiful The Assassin. Ash Mayfair demonstrates a command of colour that washes together into so many stunning shots. The luscious reds, hazy whites, stark blacks, succulent greens, and misty blues play as a well-contrasted visual symphony. I’ve never seen mist used so wondrously, as Mayfair’s camera uses it as a filter to accentuate the foreground. As a film in general, The Third Wife lingers on its visuals, avoiding dialogue as much as possible. Dripping blood, a teetering boat in a rocky abyss, a woman floating, The Third Wife cares about these abstract moments as a means to build a sense of place. The interesting choice of aspect ratio (1.66:1) also helps, keeping everything confined and intimate. Similar to recent films like The Handmaiden, there’s a real formal rigour to the production design in The Third Wife. It’s about aesthetic beauty that is completely immersive, because from there any story can be told.
The Third Wife is a powerful and gripping tale that picks apart a lifestyle lived by so many. It’s a masterpiece in a visual sense, as elegance drips from every frame. It’s a beautiful and bold film that is an impressive debut feature. Whilst it feels like something Zhang Yimou might have made in the 1990s, it has a contemporary visual sensibility that brings a new talent to Asian cinema. There are not many films with the same combination of styles, cultures, and identities that inform The Third Wife, so if you want something different, it’s worth checking out.
The Eureka Entertainment Blu-ray release comes with optional English subtitles, the theatrical trailer, and a booklet featuring an essay by David West, news editor at NEO magazine.