THE THIRD WIFE, Vietnam, 2018. Starring Nguyen Phuong, Tra My. Directed by Ash Mayfair. 96 minutes. Rated MA (Strong themes and sex scenes)
The setting is Vietnam at the end of the 19th century.
We are invited into a rather enclosed world and the Vietnamese countryside, a countryside of beautiful scenery and surroundings. We are in a wealthy home, beautiful exteriors and interiors, a family, and many servants scurrying to and fro as well as a farm, farm animals, crops and harvest. There may be an outside world but we stay within the confines of the property.
Behaviour is generally decorous, manners refined and formal, surface propriety and elegance.
And we are introduced to the 14-year-old May, the third wife of the patriarch of the house. He has several children by the first wife, a son of marriageable age, some sometimes irrepressible daughters. The first wife is the lady of the house, well-mannered, accepting her role, sympathetic to May and making her at home in the household. The second wife stays rather in the background.
With this portrait of the late 19th century, this 21st-century film actually has a lot to say about the dominance of men, some misogyny, sexual exploitation of women, the consequences of polygamy, the role of children in this kind of family setting.
While in many ways the plot is straightforward, complications continue to arise which challenge our perceptions of the characters and their behaviour and the consequences of their behaviour.
May, at this young age, has much to learn and, by and large, the family and the servants help her. There is the initial sexual experience and her feelings. There is pregnancy which is honoured – with May growing in understanding, especially of her feelings and emotions, and an unexpected attraction to the first wife.
Of course, behind-the-scenes, there are also emotional complications, two of the servants and their liaison, her head being shorn, his being beaten. And the son of the family has arrived at the age of marriage but is unwilling, a bride and dowry chosen, sight unseen, some tragic consequences.
These themes are not unfamiliar but it is watching and trying to understand them in this Vietnamese context, in this past culture, that makes the film so arresting and challenging – even to the final enigmatic close-up and our asking who is May and what is to happen to her, whether she has choices or not.
Potential Films Released July 4th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.