Film Review: The Third Wife | Vợ ba (2018)

It is hard to fathom the 19th Century universe of a Vietnamese village that Ash Mayfair’s The Third Wife inhabits. It is one that imprisons women with its strict social and behavioural code of conduct, and one in which teenage brides are locked into marriage and rushed to wager their chances at producing male heirs to the family. Equally incredible are the shoes teenage actress Nguyen Phuong Tra My has to fill for her role as an adolescent third-wife of a household, at the cusp of biological change and having to understand polygamous politics. Speaking in a meek voice at the post-screening Q&A of the 29th Singapore International Film Festival, one marvels at the starkness of her youth against her older acting counterparts Mai Thu Huong (played the second wife) and the Tran Nu Yen Khe (first wife) and can truly appreciate the depth of Ash Mayfair’s directorial cultivation, having thrown her into a role as profound as the story on display.

The Third Wife is a highly evocative tale about the relationships between different factions of a polygamous household, focussing mainly on the subtle power struggles between the three wives and their pursuit of the holy grail of ‘wifery’ - bearing a son for the family. The world this household is seen through the eyes of May, who with her wide-eye innocence is at the threshold of many inductions - puberty, sexuality, womanhood, motherhood, and gender rules. It is through her inductions, that we are also ushered into the world she inhabits and the world Ash Mayfair wants us to see. 

The film covers many grounds and Ash, in her slow-burning commentary about gender oppression, is appropriately respectful to the cultural details, nuances and taboos. From traditional festivities to the DIY cesarean delivery of a child, the audience’s vantage point is always one that is intimate and at the tipping points of the narrative. For a first-time director, it is no mean feat, balancing gracefully the urgency of the story with all the historical and cultural specificities of the era. And Ash’s definitely got a good shot reimagining what goes on a 19th Century Vietnamese bedroom. Egg yolks are apparently a must. 

Perhaps the film has been able to achieve both an indulgence in intimacy and a well-calculated narrative tempo because it owes much to seeking an economy in storytelling from the use of facial expressions, visual imagery and shrewd editing. In fact, Nguyen’s gleaming orbs are like the film’s guiding posts. Occupying most of the screen time, and yet not a lady with many words, her knowing looks are the plot connectors and some of her restrained reactions are codes to narrative turning points. Sister Ha or the first wife, is also meticulously played out by the strangely familiar Tran Nu Yen Khe, very much in the house style of auteur Tran Anh Hung’s Scent of the Green Papaya - small actions, big meanings. And yes, she looks familiar because she is the grown-up girl in ‘Papaya’. She is now all powerful as first wife in Ash’s film and one gets the sense she could switch reflexively from nurturing to nasty. 

Still on the ‘Papaya’ house style, the film with all its elements, is a pretty piece of work, in which tastefully-designed sets, nature’s lush backdrop, lucid sound design and a cast of very sensitive actors are harmoniously orchestrated into the director’s imagined 19th Century world. It could be surmised that making The Third Wife is perhaps a meditative experience for Ash. The film is certainly more than the sum of the individual parts and there is somewhat a spiritual energy flowing through the film, with life-cycle displays like the maturing of the caterpillar to the birth of the calf to the death of the donkey, as well as relationships between the human characters presented with scant dialogue, inviting us to meditate on it rather than consume mindlessly. This could explain why in a screening event that Ash herself was unable to attend (but had the attendance of her full main cast of three ladies), her absence was hardly felt. The aura that film left behind as the credits rolled has taken a life of its own. 

- Jeremy Sing 
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