The Third Wife film review: Ash Mayfair makes directorial debut

Nguyen Phuong Tra My as May in The Third Wife.
Nguyen Phuong Tra My as May in The Third Wife.

BENEATH its seemingly benign, painterly surfaces and arthouse conventions depicting traditional, historical rural Vietnamese life, The Third Wife has some of the shock and perversion of classic horror.

Director of photography Chananun Chotrungroj sets her stamp early, fulfilling director Ash Mayfair’s brief to create splendid watercolour-like tableaux, with indeterminate shapes resolving into a striking image of 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) travelling by boat to her new home.

Set in the late 19th century, and based on historical elements of Mayfair’s own family, May is to become the third wife of wealthy landowner Hung (Le Vu Long).

There is a strong sense of ritual, as May is married and becomes pregnant quickly, all the while observing the machinations of this polygamous, patriarchal household, particularly through the experience of first wife Ha (Tran Nu Yen Khe) and second wife Xuan (Mai Thu Huong).

Nguyen Phuong Tra My as May in The Third Wife.

An unexpected development with Son (Nguyen Thanh Tam), Hung’s adult son with Ha, epitomises the emotional unravelling that dwells within such constrained and autocratic relationships.

His bitterness at being forced into an arranged marriage stabs at the heart of the inbuilt expectations of these cultural practices, with increasingly tragic consequences for him and his wife.

Much has been made of the sensuality of Mayfair’s directorial debut but the strongest sense is that while nature will play out in its inexorable, often beautiful way, an emotional life is much less circumscribed.

These characters evoke a dream-like state, sleep walking in relative splendour through their repressed environment, acting out their deepest desires despite themselves.

May’s gradual awakening from her slumber is as much a critique of the contemporary struggle against patriarchal practices as that of her forebears.

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THE ESSENTIALS

The Third Wife (MA 15+)

Directed by: Ash Mayfair

Starring: Nguyen Phuong Tra My, Tran Nu Yen Khe, Mai Thu Huong, Nguyen Thanh Tam

Reviewed by: Martin Turner

Four stars

In cinemas now