By Janine Gericke.
There is a significant amount of symbolism throughout Ash Mayfair’s feature debut The Third Wife. The director and cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj juxtapose the nuances of the lush natural settings of Vietnam with the rigid 19th-century patriarchal society surrounding the film’s female characters. The film follows 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), as we see her observe her surroundings, watching and learning from the other women in the village. It’s a coming of age story, following a child bride as she navigates her way through this society while also discovering who she is.
The film opens with a gorgeous scene of a series of row boats drifting along the water surrounded by cliffs. Blues and reds dominate the screen. When we first see May, she is sitting in one of the boats, which is taking her to her future husband and family. In order to pay off her father’s debt, she is being given to wealthy landowner Hung. She wears a red robe, the little pop of color amidst all of the blues and greens of the water and cliffs. In many cultures, the color red symbolizes power and freedom. For May and Hung’s two other wives, this only represents their social status. These women can only gain power by how they are viewed within their society. If they can give their husband a baby boy, their station in the hierarchy rises.
Mayfair takes her time in telling this story. She lets the camera linger, allowing scenes to naturally unfold. Instead of showing us too much, she lets us take a moment to contemplate what we have just seen. The film doesn’t rely too heavily on dialogue. Mayfair pays attention to body language and glances between characters. She has created an atmospheric film that pauses and reflects on nature, though not so atmospheric that we get lost in the fog.
It’s true that The Third Wife has undeniably ruffled some feathers, mostly for the casting of its then 13 year old lead, but it is an important film to see. It deals with difficult subject matter, but tells the story in a moving and delicate way. The story is inspired by the real events of Mayfair’s great-grandmother, which only adds more brilliance and heartbreak to the film.
Mayfair and her editor Julie Beziau use interesting editing techniques and transitions throughout the film. In one scene, May is at first sitting at a table during her wedding ceremony, then the scene quickly but smoothly cuts to her sitting on a bed about to have her first sexual experience. Mayfair keeps the camera focused on May almost the entire time. As May lies on the bed, she stares up at the moon, as if it could pull her away. She is scared and not exactly sure what to expect, so this is a way to distance herself from her body. Before consummating their marriage, an egg yolk is placed on May’s stomach, which Hung then sips from her belly button. Of course the egg yolk is a symbol of fertility and life, which here is seen as the creation of life. The following morning, May sits on the bed holding a blood spotted cloth that she was lying on, as proof that she is now a woman and a wife, and hopefully soon a mother. Nature is a big part of life with scenes of flowing/running water, flowers swaying in the breeze, caterpillars in cocoons – all showing the passage of time throughout May’s pregnancy.
Mayfair has created a story that tackles a cruel point in history. It was a time when women were expected to serve men, by literally serving them. A young girl, even younger than May is married to Hung’s firstborn son, who rejects the girl. The girl’s father is asked to take his “untouched” daughter back. He scolds her for not succeeding at the one thing she is meant to do. It’s a heartbreaking scene and a glimpse into the pressures these women went through.
The Third Wife is really a coming of age story. We take in everything from May’s point of view. She is placed in this situation at such a young age and has to discover who she is and who she wants to be. She looks up to the first wife Ha (Tran Nu Yên-Khê) and finds herself drawn to Hung’s second wife Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya). Xuan is free spirited and is looked down upon for only giving Hung daughters. She also happens to be having an affair with Hung’s first-born son. Xuan doesn’t seem affected by those around her, which is intriguing to May.
One bit of hope that is shown in The Third Wife, is that despite the circumstances, these women guide May through the day to day. There is no animosity, no backstabbing or conniving; they are supportive of each other. Afterall, she is only 14, and we don’t have much of a sense of what her life was like before this. Hopefully she goes on to become the woman that she wants to be, not what anyone expects her to be.
Janine Gericke is an Audiovisual Archivist at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley and regular contributor for Film International.