Mining the past to unearth fables for the present can be the lazy filmmaker’s way out. To bring fresh life to the conceit takes a fair bit of finesse and experience from a director or screenwriter. But when it’s done well, film’s power to shine a light on timely issues, through the lens of the past, is nearly unmatched.
It’s all the more surprising then that “The Third Wife” — the capably told tale of the awakening of a 14-year-old bride — is the first feature film from Vietnamese-born writer and director Ash Mayfair.
The story follows May (stunningly played by newcomer Nguyen Phuong Tra My), whom we first see as she’s en route, by river boat, to marry a much older landowner. The family she’s about to join under an arranged marriage is naturally patriarchal: In addition to catering to the sexual desires of her husband — who already has two other wives — she is also expected to perform such menial tasks as giving her father-in-law a sponge bath.
By placing viewers in what, for most of us, will be unfamiliar terrain — rural, 19th-century Vietnam — Mayfair pulls off a deft sleight-of-hand. Instead of belaboring, with tedious exposition, the specifics of a culture and setting that are rare, if not unique in cinema, the director turns in the opposite direction.
She trims nearly every piece of fat and gristle from the plot. Dialogue is terse. The only excess is the film’s cinematography (by Chananun Chotrungroj), which paints the countryside in lush, naturalistic strokes, revealing the filmmaker’s tender affection for the land. While some viewers may crave more context, Mayfair takes the viewer’s hand, showing us what’s next with a confidence and assurance that is sometimes hard to find, even in veteran filmmakers.
The subjects upon whom the camera gazes most tenderly are the women of the home. If May is subjugated because of her gender and youth, she is never the victim. As she is bedded on her wedding night, we recognize the look on her face — the face of a girl unschooled in the ways of the world to come. Yet Mayfair doesn’t allow us to linger on it long enough to see the pain and fear.
Finding herself in what amounts to competition with her husband’s other wives, May seeks refuge with various female workers around the home, who offer advice about what’s in store for her as a wife, and how the world itself works. The oldest wife (Tran Nu Yen Khe) is a stern figure, the favorite of her husband because she has born him a boy, called Son (Nguyen Thanh Tam). The second wife, Xuan (Mai Thu Huong), however, is more vexing to May, who discovers that Xuan is having an affair with Son. May spies on their dalliances without confronting them, awakening a sensual stirring in herself that is not socially acceptable.
It’s here that Mayfair’s inexperience shows. Although she wisely sidesteps the ethical implications of watching a teenager, out of her depth, explore her sexuality, Mayfair’s storytelling is a little ham-handed when she resorts to quick-cutting between blooming flowers and flowing rivers as unsubtle shorthand for sexual awakening.
And maybe that’s her point.
Some viewers may want delicacy in a period film about women navigating a world in which they’ve been pitted against one another. But maybe, Mayfair suggests, we need the blunt reminder: The issues that women were confronting in the Vietnam of the 1800s — a world in which they’re considered property more than people — aren’t all that different from today.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains sexual material. In Vietnamese with subtitles. 96 minutes.