Despite existing for more than a century, the art of filmmaking still has the power to surprise and transport us. Whether it’s a fictional African metropolis or a remote tribal community in the Pacific, cinema possesses an unparalleled ability to open our eyes to new cultures and societies. Such is the effect in Ash Mayfair’s debut feature “The Third Wife“, which delicately uncovers the lives of patriarchal Vietnamese society through the eyes of a young woman.
An inviting scene greets audiences in the opening moments of “The Third Wife”. Nestled alongside calm rivers and majestic green hills, we find the new home of 14-year old protagonist May. Sent to be the third wife of a wealthy landowner as payment for her father’s debt, May becomes intrigued by her role in this unfamiliar household. And soon, she realizes that her status among the wives is tied to her ability to produce a male child for her husband. But her aspirations are threatened by her newfound feelings towards the second wife. As she comes of age, she is confronted with potentially life-changing decisions about her future.
On the surface, “The Third Wife” doesn’t immediately strike viewers as particularly feminist. Its soft-spoken protagonist is largely reticent about her situation and settles into the conventional gender roles assigned by 19th century Vietnamese norms. And with its slow pacing and genteel aura, the tone of the film hardly reflects a rebellious spirit.
Yet there’s more than meets the eye for both the character and the film itself. Wide-eyed as she constantly observes the established hierarchy, Nguyen Phuong Tra My is beguiling in the lead role. As she undergoes her sexual awakening, her expressive face conveys the forbidden desire she is forced to hide. Through the palpably sensuous depiction of her sexuality, the tension rises to the surface. Furthermore, the radiant cinematography from Chananun Chotrungroj emphasizes the juxtaposition between the rigid constraints of the dim home and the vibrant, carnal ethos of the lush natural environment.
Indeed, there’s a subversive undercurrent to the film which manifests in genuinely surprising ways. Intermittently breaking the monotony of their daily routine, the film jolts to life through startling moments where several characters take their destiny into their own hands. Young and old, man and woman, the seeds of a new social order are being planted in the fertile soil.
Ultimately, the film’s deliberate pacing and restrained atmosphere can feel slightly underwhelming in our modern era of scorched earth activism. But as “The Third Wife” slowly builds to a powerful conclusion, there is strength in its feminist conviction. After all, today’s waves of female resistance owe much to the early trickles exemplified in this graceful film.