The Third Wife (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): A calm, sensuous period drama set in Vietnam

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Vietnamese period drama film “The Third Wife” is a calm, sensuous experience to be savored for good reasons. Set in a rural region of Vietnam around the late 19th century, the movie gives us a detached but vivid look into what its young heroine quietly endures in her small closed world firmly maintained by patriarchic customs, and there are several subdued but powerful moments of pain and sadness which are further accentuated by a number of utterly gorgeous visual moments unfolded on the screen.

At the beginning, we see a young adolescent girl named May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) being brought to the house belonging to Hung (Long Le Vu), a wealthy landowner who is about to marry May although she is only 13 years old. While he already has a son from his first wife Ha (Tran Nu Yen Khe), Hung wants to have another son, and May is going to be his third wife as reflected by the very title of the film.

Once May arrives at Hung’s house, the movie patiently observes how they and Hung’s family members go through the wedding ceremony step by step. After meeting Hung’s aging father, May soon gets married officially to her husband in front of his family members and servants, and, via small nuances and gestures occasionally glimpsed from this scene, we gradually gather that not many of them are particularly pleased about her marriage although everyone sticks to their gentle and courteous attitude.

When the wedding night eventually comes, May is sent to her bedroom where she is going to spend her first night with her husband, and this rather uncomfortable moment is tactfully and tastefully presented with some interesting traditional details, while never overlooking how scared and nervous May is about her first sexual experience. At one point, an egg yolk is placed on May’s belly when her husband comes, and he promptly slurps it before embarking on his copulation with May. On the next morning, we see her standing beside an object announcing her loss of virginity to her husband, and that subtly but sharply reminds us of how thousands of women like May were frequently deprived of their physical autonomy throughout the human history.

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After her wedding night, May slowly gets accustomed to the social hierarchy among the family members. While Ha officially outranks Hung’s second wife Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya), Hung has usually received more favors from Hung as a younger wife even though she has not produced any son for him yet, and May soon comes to discern that she may get a lot more attention from her husband than before if she gets pregnant.

Now the story looks like a variation of Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991), and the mood naturally becomes a bit tense as both Ha and May subsequently become pregnant, but the movie keeps maintaining its phlegmatic attitude as gently moving from one episodic moment to another. While there is an unexpected moment of surprise when May happens to discover what has been going on between Xuan and a certain character in the house, there are also lively moments as May often hangs around a bit with Xuan’s young daughter, who is bound to get married to someone older just like May within a few years.

However, the movie does not look away at all from what its female characters have to suffer under their patriarchic system, and that aspect is mainly represented by two different but equally sad episodes. When a male servant in the house gets caught for being too close to one female servant, he is punished with only several lashings, and he is also allowed to remain in the house while that poor female servant, who happens to be pregnant because of him, is forced to leave the house and then go to a Buddhist temple where she will probably spend the rest of her life. When Hung’s only son is about to get married, he refuses his young bride for a personal reason which has been eating him for a while, but his bride’s father only blames his daughter as refusing to accept the annulment of the wedding at all, and that eventually leads to a tragic consequence.

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While these and other things happen around her, May constantly maintains her docile façade, but thanks to the plain but nuanced natural performance by Nguyen Phuong Tra My (She was only 12 years old when she was cast for the film, by the way), her feelings and thoughts churning below the surface are clearly conveyed to us even though her tranquil face does not seem to express anything on the screen. As opening her eyes more to the world limiting her in many aspects, May becomes more suffocated and frustrated, and we are not so surprised when she attempts to follow what she thinks her heart wants at one point later in the film.

Although it initially requires considerable patience due to its slow narrative pacing and restrained storytelling approach, the movie still engages us as showing care and empathy toward its young heroine, and director/writer Ash Mayfair, who previously made several short films before making a feature film debut here, and her crew members did a superlative job to say the least. While the production design by Do Trong An and the costume design by Phuong Thao Tran are full of details to be appreciated, the cinematography by Chananun Chotrungroj often shines with crisp beauty, which is further accentuated by the ambient score by An Ton That.

In conclusion, “The Third Wife” is a notable debut feature film to be admired for its undeniably beautiful moments, and I was often touched by its small but precious emotional moments even though I usually observed it from the distance during my viewing. As your typical arthouse film, it is definitely not something you can casually watch on Sunday afternoon, but you will not forget it easily once you watch it.

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