Film about the oppression of women throughout history and in society is so common now as to be almost its own genre, transcending historical fiction, biopic, epic, fantasy, drama, all of which occupy only a portion of its territory, from fantastical treatments like Pan’s Labyrinth to films like Jeanne Dielman…etc., a grinding treatment of everyday exploitation, and up to Hollywood exoticisms such as Memiors of a Geisha. As a genre, they embody certain archetypes and common motifs, often encompassing sexual violence or exploitation, the yearning for freedom, the condemnation of the society that denies it. However, even as it stands now in striking maturity, a quick glance at the headlines tells you that this genre is still just as vital as it ever was, just as needed as it was in the decades and centuries before its conception. Good thing, then, that the filmmakers who provide its numerous entries, with some, largely male, exceptions, so consistently hit the mark, advancing the dialogue intrinsic to the genre, deepening its nuance, sharpening its social critiques. And even better that an entirely new filmmaker, Ash Mayfair, has made such a striking, perceptive, and masterful entry with her Vietnamese debut, The Third Wife.
The third wife here is fourteen-year-old May, played with wonderful precision and maturity by Nguyen Phuong Tra My, whom we first meet en route to her marriage, travelling along the river that comes to stand in for the barriers between childhood and marriage, virginity and sexuality, and life and death. Over the course of the film, we watch the following year of May’s life, as she navigates all of these waters with no assurance and little protection. During this year, she not only will lose her innocence and cross the barrier between girlhood and motherhood, as construed in patriarchal culture, but she will also experience her own sexual awakening, leading into a more profound, stymied awakening of selfhood. Following her first night with her husband, a wealthy farmer of the Hung family (Le Vu Long), May becomes pregnant, quickly pushing her into the ongoing jockeying for privilege and power amongst the wives, each vying for their children. The first wife, Mistress Ha (Tran Nu Yen-Khe), retains her position as most favored, due to her only child, Son (Nguyen Thanh Tam), the sole male child of the family, approaching adulthood himself. The second, Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya), is currently out of favor, having produced three daughters but no sons. And now May is the only wife who is pregnant, leaving her in a sudden position of favoritism which at first ameliorates her to her situation but later underscores its precarious vulnerability. In between all this, May begins to develop romantic feelings of her own for Xuan, reaching out to the second wife for commiseration and comfort but also, eventually, to express sexual longing. This emotional arc, handled with such delicacy as to almost be shading along the edges of a portrait, sharpens her growing desperation and awareness that she will never attain the satisfaction of her basic needs.
As the year waxes across the seasons, Mayfair continues to develop the incredibly sophisticated symbolic undercurrent she introduced surreptitiously in the first scene. We are painfully aware of how limited these lives are by the seasons surrounding them, which enact themselves upon the women in particular, both through their fortunes and abilities but, more importantly, in their very bodies. As the seasons pass, May’s body swells with her unborn child, invested psychologically with her hopes that the baby will be a boy and secure her place in the family against the current of dissonance she’s experiencing against such an eventuality. Mayfair introduces this seasonal superstructure early on, in the pivotal scene of the first sexual encounter May has with Master Hung, and the first such encounter of her very young life. This scene is handled with heartbreaking care by Mayfair and played with powerful effectiveness by both Nguyen and Le Vu. Naked beneath the husband she’s only just met, an egg yolk is scooped from a ceremonial dish and allowed to slip from the spoon onto her body, coming to rest at her navel. Hung now approaches her, leaning in towards the yolk and slurping it into his mouth from her navel – taking and consuming the symbol of her fecundity for himself, claiming ownership of her. And then, the frame focused on her face, we see her shock at penetration.
Here, Mayfair moves from a documentation of nineteenth century Vietnamese marriage practices and into a deeper level of symbolism, working, as she does consistently throughout the film, against the symbolic meaning we’ve been instructed to accept. The first contact between May and her husband cuts away to the image of silk worms, pale and slimy in the moonlight, struggling upwards in their endless hunt for food, the beginning of the silk harvest that is the basis of Hung’s wealth. Initially, cutting from the sharp pain of May losing her virginity to this beautifully disgusting image is bracing, and the clear phallic resonance of the worms immediately uncomfortable, as well as their wriggling struggle. This initial disgust gives away to awareness, though, that this is a larva stage, a child whose efforts to achieve maturity will create the silk harvest from its cocoon, in the same way that May’s trauma will produce a pregnancy, which, like the silkworm, will grow and transform with the changing of the seasons, perhaps to produce something of incredible beauty. However, the final stage of the harvest is boiling the worms alive in their silk cocoons, to prevent them from destroying the cocoon on their maturity. Who, then, as these silkworms struggle in the moonlight, is being set up for boiling?
Such stunning, carefully mature artistry is only the beginning of what Mayfair accomplishes in this film. This profound symbolic structure weaves itself through the psychologies of these characters, supporting them and spinning out from them, creating a sense of a deeply felt and lived-in world, full of its own mysteries, lies, truths, and ignorance, which each character is forced to attempt to navigate as best they can. These attempted navigations crescendo into a stirring emotional climax that is absolutely devastating, and a perfect synthesis of the complicated visual, symbolic, and emotional structure of the film. That the film is often also funny and touching, occasionally sexy, unnervingly dramatic, and painfully subtle can only be a surprise with even the most experienced filmmakers. That it’s here in a debut is nearly unbelievable. This is a truly special film.
From the first frame, the photography by Chananun Chotrungroj compels us with its profound beauty, but, more importantly, elicits attention and reveals important details, beginning the long, symbolic undercurrent that surrounds and flows through this film. The Third Wife is a psychological work, and the construction of the film, from Chotrungroj’s stirring cinematography to Julie Beziau’s lyrical editing, all serves to put us inside May’s head, to understand her world and its layers of meaning, power, and collapsing agency. This powerful sense of identification, however, goes deeper than simply serving to put us on the right side, so to speak – it sets the audience up to perceive that which May can only see darkly: the cocoon of competing obligations, duties, expectations, and abnegation that has already bound her tight and will now hold her fast to be preyed upon. She will come to realize that there is no winning in this formulation, and that this structure consumes itself and everyone inside.