It’s customary to wait until the end of a review before telling the reader if they should go and see a film or not. In the case of The Third Wife – out now on Blu-Ray from Eureka’s Montage Pictures imprint – the matter may be a little more urgent. Ash Mayfair’s debut film has been pulled from theatres in her home country of Vietnam over the age of its lead actress, Nguyen Phuong Tra My, who was thirteen when she made the film. Vietnamese readers who are curious about the film, then, might be advised to order an import before it’s too late.
The British Board of Film Classification, who are rightly strict on depictions of underage sex (Catherine Breillat’s A Ma Soeur!, for example, remains cut for home release) awarded it a 15 certificate, noting on their website that “It is implied that a man has sex with a child”. My plays May, a fourteen-year-old selected as the third wife of Hung, a wealthy older landowner. It is the nineteenth century, and rural Vietnam offers few better prospects for young girls. People crowd around her, telling her this is a wonderful opportunity, but from the start she’s sceptical. In terms of what’s on screen, there’s nothing as queasy as the wedding night custom at the start, where Hung eats an egg yolk out of May’s navel. But there is no doubt about what’s happening.
And, to me, there seemed to be no doubt as to Mayfair’s opinion of it. She has spoken about the inspiration for the film coming from her own family history, and it’s clear that she relates deeply to the girls and women in her film. The film’s strongest suit is its portrayal of deep, tender relations between the wives. Even as they’re aware that producing a male baby would raise their status in Hung’s household, they are largely immune to competition.
The danger of this is that the film becomes largely immune to drama. Towards the end Mayfair experiments a little with tone and pace, including an unexpectedly visceral childbirth scene. For most of the film’s run-time, though, it works at a quiet, unhurried pace, allowing viewers the chance to drink in the wonderful costume design and Chananun Chotrungroj’s lavish cinematography. The Third Wife takes as much pleasure in nature as a Nicolas Winding Refn film does in pink neon lights, including repeated shots of silkworms – a metaphor for the cocoon May finds herself in, as well as a reminder of the humble roots of the opulence of Hung’s household.
I found the placidness of Mayfair’s film occasionally testing; for all the empathy it has for May’s situation, I occasionally wanted it to show a bit of outrage too. It is, however, worth sticking with. The final act is full of pain and hard-won hope, and it persuaded me that Mayfair’s unsensational narrative approach was probably the right one; a less measured take on this script would probably tip into outright melodrama by the end. At the very least, it makes it easy to defend the film from the criticisms it’s received at home. For better or worse, there is nothing scandalous here – just a finely-mounted period film whose impressive young lead should be allowed to feel proud, rather than forced to be ashamed, of her accomplishments.
THE THIRD WIFE IS OUT NOW FROM MONTAGE PICTURES