Ash Mayfair’s The Third Wife tells the story of a teenage girl whose family marries her off in nineteenth-century Vietnam. The film is now available on VOD.
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Ash Mayfair’s The Third Wife is a powerful exercise in empathy, an exquisitely beautiful film on the surface which contains one of the bleakest portrayals of how patriarchy limits women’s autonomy. In nineteenth-century Vietnam, fourteen-year-old May (Nguyễn Phương Trà My) is married off by her family as a landowner’s third wife. May has no relationship with her husband, Hung (Le Vu Long) — who has a daughter that is the same age as her — beyond his appearances in her bedroom. The other two wives, Xuan (Mai Thu Hường) and Ha (Trần Nữ Yên Khê), mentor May on sex and decorum. At first, May internalizes the idea that her “value” lies in being able to give birth to a son. When she gives birth to a daughter, instead, she begins to wonder what rebellion is even possible under a thoroughly constricting patriarchy.
The Third Wife focuses on patriarchal violence as a way of life rather than on particular individual actions. Hung is distant, but not particularly cruel. He is simply playing the role society expects of a man. The majority of what we see in the film is the women’s day to day life: doing chores and sharing jokes and tips. Mayfair and cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj have a strong command of sharp, textured natural light. The film presents a striking contrast between the natural world May often longingly looks out towards and the murky, suffocating rooms of the male world.
Mayfair’s choice to focus on normal, everyday events rather than the viscerally terrible ones is particularly devastating because it emphasizes how May can not imagine a better life she could escape to. Instead, the older women give May tips on how to make the best of their current situation. As far as May knows, this is how life is everywhere and her only choice is to continue to live or not.
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