Ash Mayfair’s powerful debut feature, The Third Wife, is a damning tale of the destructive patriarchy that dominated 19th century Vietnamese society.
This evocative film starts with the images of a fourteen year old girl, May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), arriving by boat to fulfil her duties as the third wife to Hung, a wealthy local landowner. The film then undertakes an exploration of this young woman’s burgeoning sexuality whilst, conversely, accentuating the dispassionate nature, and emotional cruelty, of her marriage.
Throughout the film, the concept of desire is depicted as a cancerous influence which damages all of the characters in their pursuit of it.
Mayfair skilfully subverts the distractingly picturesque rural setting employed here, presenting it to be more of a claustrophobic internment camp for women, where happiness is momentary and never allowed to thrive.
Having based her film on her own family history, it is clear that Mayfair understandably bears some residual resentment towards the culture of her homeland and its traditional subjugation of women. This sense of frustration must have been further exacerbated when the film was banned in Vietnam, after it had received initial official script and screening approvals, as a result of an audience backlash to a relatively brief scene which focuses upon May’s exploration of her same-sex attraction to Hung’s second wife, Xuan (Mai Thu Huong).
The cruel treatment of the women in this film is confronting in its assumed acceptance, and is manifest in the emotional detachment; the expectations of duties to be fulfilled, and in the indifference to feelings that have become part of the traditional rite of becoming a man.
Mayfair does manage, however, through revealing Hung’s eldest son’s despair in the face of having to conform to this oppressive social system, to expose its collateral damage. She asserts that neither gender is comfortable in adhering to their expected roles.
Cinematographer, Chananun Chotrungroj, using the stunning imagery of the Vietnamese countryside, and her accentuation of the natural beauty of the three wives, provides a stark backdrop to the ugly and deliberate imposition of human misery that is the focus of this story. In a world that offers us more than we need to achieve contentment, she ensures that the audience is constantly reminded of the folly of such destructive human endeavour as, emotionally blinkered, we ignore it.
The seductively slow pace of the story and the sumptuous quality of the visuals provides a hypnotic viewing experience.
The lasting impact of this film, however, is in the realisation that no matter when or where in our shared histories, we have all contributed to our own misery through being complicit in allowing the construction of social rules which exact such a price on our own happiness.
The Third Wife will have three screenings as part of the OzAsia Film Festival. Screenings will be at the Mercury Cinema on Friday 18 October at 10:45am, Sunday 3 November at 12:00pm, and Wednesday 6 November at 5:00pm.
Tickets available here: OzAsia Festival Tix