‘The Third Wife’: Amid lush, colonial Vietnam, married at 14 to discover complex sisterhood
Recently I had the opportunity to rewatch the taboo, erotic drama “Adore” (2013) starring two very compelling actresses – Naomi Watts and Robin Wright – as mothers having relations with each other’s 18-year-old sons. A hypnotically alluring WTF, “Adore” pulls you in and makes what’s off the moral compass seem rationally right by immersing you in the characters and their desires. The same applies to Ash Mayfair’s compelling directorial debut, “The Third Wife,” though besides the forbidden fruit and foreign soil (it takes place in Vietnam; “Adore” is set in Australia) there’s little other tether: “The Third Wife” takes place a century and more ago, when money and position allow men to have their way, in this case engaging in outright polygamy – thus the title.
The film focuses on the inclusion of May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) as the new third wife in question, barely a teenager. When we meet her, her husband Hung (Long Le Vu) sucks an egg yolk from her belly before taking her. It’s a painful, erotic and disturbing scene. Set in the rural setting of a silk farm (worms, webs and lush green bamboo imagery fill the screen) during the colonial era, the women are isolated and subjected to the rule of tradition, but Hung is not an overtly oppressive head of house and the three women (the other two wives played by the stunning Nu Yên-Khê Tran and Mai Thu Huong Maya) and Hung’s pubescent daughter Lien (Lam Thanh My) interact freely and forge a knowing sisterhood.
Other subplots causing friction on the plantation flow through Hung’s son, named Son (Nguyen Thanh Tam), having an affair with his second wife, Xuan, and the budding same-sex attraction between a very pregnant May and Xuan. It’s the kind of subtle turmoil that so completely filled Zhang Yimou’s fantastic early works (“Raise the Red Lantern” and “Red Sorghum”) or the first film out of Vietnam to earn Academy Award recognition, “The Scent of Green Papaya” (1993).
Mayfair, who grew up in Vietnam but was Western-educated from an early age, crafts a composition that feels masterful beyond her slim CV in emotional complexity, plot and orchestration. Of course, it helps have on hand artistic adviser Tran Anh Hung (director of “Green Papaya,” and husband of Nu Yên-Khê Tran), formal recognition and support from Spike Lee (the Spike Lee Film Production Award) and Chananun Chotrungroj’s dewy and glorious framing of erotic meanderings amid verdant backdrops. The film stumbled into a bit of a controversy when Mayfair cast a 12-year-old in the role of May. That aside, Nguyen Phuong Tra My and the whole cast deliver deep, heartfelt performances, conveying effectively what the laconic script has intentionally left to thespian heft. If the notion of a 14-year-old bride, or actor roughly that age playing such, disturbs you, think how the women relegated into such roles without a choice felt.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.