The Third Wife (Ash Mayfair, 2019) 2.5 out of 4 stars.
Director Ash Mayfair combines lush images, strong performances and bold ideas in her debut feature The Third Wife, the resultant cinematic stew a roiling mix of oppression, passion, latent desires and simmering rebellion. Though set in 19th-century Vietnam, the movie recalls, in theme and cinematography, Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s 1991 Raise the Red Lantern (which takes place in the 1920s), both stories tackling issues of sexual slavery and abuse of women. It is ironic that the film has stirred controversy in its native country over the perceived exploitation of its teenage star, given its strong condemnation of patriarchal norms. To be fair to both sides, I also find it disturbing to watch scenes of a 13-year-old engaging in sexual reenactments, but also question how one could explore the topic otherwise. Still, “cast older for younger” is always a good mantra to live by when making movies about youth, and it seems that such a rule could have saved Mayfair and her team much grief. Live and learn.
Nguyen Phuong Tra My (the 13-year-old) plays 14-year-old May, the titular third wife, who joins her new family as the film begins. We know nothing about her past, joining her in medias res as she arrives for the wedding, greeted by husband, his father, wives number one and two and their children. Quickly, we cut to the coital bed, May’s breasts artfully covered by strands of hair as the groom takes her virginity. The next day, the blood-stained sheets are proudly displayed, and life moves on. The older wives are kind to May, especially given that she is younger than the eldest’s son and just barely older than the middle one’s daughters, but their maternal friendship is not without its competitive air. That’s what oppressive systems do: divide and conquer, lest too much solidarity develop among the ruled. Still, they teach her a little bit about what to expect, and give her tips on how to take what pleasure she can (sexual and otherwise) from the situation.
It’s a slow burn of a movie, little events taking their time to develop into major crises, subtle signs of resistance gently rising to the surface. It’s almost too inert for much of its length, however, sidetracked away from important issues into glossy softcore porn. Though sex and procreation are clearly central pillars of how male-centered hierarchies control women, it is surprising how little Mayfair seems concerned about her characters’ inner lives beyond the carnal. True, there’s not much else to do or think about in the film’s isolated location, but the relentless focus on sex detracts from the deeper, existential underpinnings of the narrative. There’s a nice hint of what might have been in the final moments as Mayfair explores gender identity, but overall the aesthetically beautiful The Third Wife leaves us wanting more content, less style.