Ash Mayfair’s painterly Vietnamese drama “The Third Wife” draws us in to a cloistered world of 18th century rural polygamy and suppressed desire that puts a filmic premium on every instance of touch, be it tolerated, welcome or feared.
In a remote, beautiful stretch of river-run valley, 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) becomes the youngest of three bonded mistresses to an older landowner (Le Vu Long) who expects a son, the true source of wifely power in the household. Though he has a grown male heir with eldest wife Ha (Tran Nu Yên-Khê), the status of second wife Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya) was compromised when she birthed daughters. May, eager to show her reproductive fealty, prays for a boy, but she is also awakening to her true sexuality when she develops a growing attraction to free-spirited Xuan, who is herself engaging in a secret, turbulent affair with her husband’s son.
Mayfair and cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj turn their setting’s soft-lighted interiors, narrow-focus close-ups and tranquil exteriors into a truly gorgeous, detailed picture book of intimacy and erotic unease in a rigid patriarchy, even if the frequent cutaways to running water and lepidoptera are a little too on the nose as metaphoric commentary, and the overall rhythm edges toward monotonously sleepy. But there is much that is finely wrought here as a tactile slice of women’s history told in careful observances, hidden textures and the sights and sounds of nature unbound.
‘The Third Wife’
In Vietnamese with English subtitles
Rated: R, for sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Starts May 24 in limited release