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Review: Vietnamese drama ‘The Third Wife’ unveils a tactile slice of women’s history

Review: Vietnamese drama ‘The Third Wife’ unveils a tactile slice of women’s history
Mai Thu Huong Maya, left, Nguyen Nhu Quynh and Nguyen Phuong Tra My in the movie "The Third Wife." (Film Movement)

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.

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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.

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‘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

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