It is late 19th century Vietnam and 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) is being taken by boat to her new home. This is Vietnamese American filmmaker Ash Mayfair’s debut feature and she has created an immersive world for us to enter.
The opening scene is lyrical, the red boat skims blue water through a spectacular river gorge and verdant countryside with misty mountains on the horizon. Traditional woodwind music and sounds of running water enhance the tranquil setting. But the movie title points to a darker reality: the watchful, innocent May is to be the third wife of a prosperous silk plantation owner and the tension of the first scenes are held by the fact that we know she is destined for a marriage bed with an older man; a stranger.
“This is a coming of age story,” Mayfair told ‘Women and Hollywood’ ahead of the film’s success at the Toronto and Sundance film festivals.
“The film is inspired by my family history,” she adds. “The roles expected of women in society have always been something I wish to explore in my work. The protagonist can only be a wife and a mother, even though in reality she is a child. She faces severe repercussions if she chooses to be anything else…The characters of this story may belong to a distant past (but) their narrative and struggles are very much present in our contemporary society.”
The deflowering scene is filmed like the rest of Mayfair’s direction with delicacy and economy. Not a word is spoken for the first 10 minutes of the story, until after this incident.
Then May confides her ambition, fully sensible of her role.
“I want a boy,” she says.
The landowner has not fathered a son, hence his requirement of a third wife to secure the dynasty. May is the third wife but scoring that prize automatically changes the pecking order.
We are used to seeing European costume dramas, so it’s almost a culture shock to watch an Asian version of a Merchant Ivory period piece, just as gorgeously depicted, where daughters must be married and the patriarchy rests on male heirs.
The Third Wife is a more sensual offering than you would see on Downton Abbey or Vanity Fair. Here, the intimacy between wives includes sharing sex techniques and complex emotional bonds.
A shout out should go to DP Chananun Chotrungroj, who supports Mayfair’s vision as details and rituals of daily life are beautifully described in the sensory experience of the home, garden and animals.
This is a lyrical film that never loses sight of barbaric elements underneath. The morning after her wedding night, May is on display in the courtyard, standing next to the bloodied linen, proof of possession. Mayfair has done a fine job of opening a window on Vietnam’s history, with a view that resonates across all cultures.