At a time when women are increasingly empowered to be the champions of their own destinies, there’s always a sense of melancholy when delving into times when things were less forgiving. Period films, whether be it Western or Eastern-based, always provide a good window into the world where women are expected to fulfil certain gender roles. This sets the plot of Ash Mayfair’s feature-length directorial debut, which though straightforward, evokes a complexity of emotions.
Set in rural Vietnam, follow 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) as she enters into an arranged marriage with wealthy landowner Hung, becoming the third mistress of the household. As we’re subsequently introduced to the first and second wives – the elegant Ha (Tran Nu Yen Khe) and seductive Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya) respectively – we witness the brutal politics coming into play.
On the surface, the wives might seem to have accepted May through cordial conversations and by including her during meal times. However, the undercurrent of competitiveness between them is discernible to the audience. And let’s be honest, who wouldn’t be? No one relishes in witnessing their beloved spouse falling in love with another, but polygamy is the societal norm back in those days, and women simply have to make do. Despite merely being the on-looker, we’re thrust into a sense of desperation that echoes that of the female characters, and we can no longer be fooled by the film’s seemingly harmless illusions.
After the first intimate encounter between the protagonist and Hung, May soon discerns the presence of a hierarchy in the family. Ha, the only wife to have given birth to a male heir, is treated with much reverence and possesses the coveted position of ‘Lady of the House’. This is when the story takes a more suggestive turn, and we can finally comprehend the story’s grittiness at its core. As a woman myself, I can’t help but feel pangs of both anger and sympathy while being confronted with the portrayal of patriarchal oppression that Mayfair has candidly depicted.
Before you know it, May’s small, cherubic body is filled out to accommodate a child. There’s something rather distressing to watch her belly grow while she’s tending the land and frolicking around with Xuan’s young daughters. The rapid transition between adolescent by day and woman at night is – in a definite sense – morally fallacious to many of us, and that’s exactly what Mayfair unapologetically wants us to endure. Some of the scenes shot are uncomfortably provocative, though this lead us to form a perspective of life back in the old days. To cut right to the chase, it ain’t pretty.
Despite the hauntingly repulsive nature of the film, there’s no doubt it’s a visually stunning masterpiece. The soft, pastel colour palette and symmetrical compositions give off the impression of a Wes Anderson movie, and each shot is like a painting coming to life. In this case, cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj has to create an artistic illusion to display the graphic scenes, considering that the lead actress, Nguyen Phuong Tra My, was controversially only 12-years-old during the time of filming. Nevertheless, we are treated to a scenic narrative experience with the lush mountains and vibrant traditional costumes.
The Third Wife is more than just another Story of Yanxi Palace. The tale doesn’t just touch on the bitter rivalry between the three wives, but also sisterhood and the pains of growing up in the confines of matrimony and family honour. It might not be the film to watch for casual viewing, but it sure does warms any cold, dead heart.
Watch The Third Wife on iTunes.