In the Vietnamese drama The Third Wife, 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) becomes the youngest of three bonded mistresses of an old and wealthy landowner (Le Vu Long). Soon after her marriage, May learns that she can only gain status by proclaiming herself as a woman who can give birth to a son. May hopes to show her reproductive devotion and prays for a boy. Shortly after, she awakens to her true sexuality when she becomes attracted to free-spirited Xuan, who is herself entangled in a secret, stormy affair with her husband’s son.
The story, which follows May from the day of her arrival through a pregnancy, paints her social and physical surroundings with quiet lucidity. Faced with forbidden love and its crushing consequences, May finally comes to an understanding of the heartless truth: the possibilities available to her are few and far between.
The Third Wife, set in the late 19th century, marks the ambitious debut of Vietnamese director Ash Mayfair (who gained her MFA from NYU.) When writing the story, Mayfair was inspired by her own family history. Like many other women in the same period in Vietnam, her great-grandmother and grandmother had arranged marriages at a young age. Her great-grandmother was in a polygamous marriage from when she was a teenager until the end of her life. The roles expected of women in society had always been something Mayfair wished to explore in her work. “As a child, I grew up with my family passing on all these anecdotes, so I secretly dreamed from early on to one day make a movie. When my mentors at school encouraged me to write something deeply personal, I was terrified to bring this story but once I overcame my fears, I trusted that I could translate this intimate tale on to the screen.”
In The Third Wife, Mayfair largely used natural light, employing water and natural imagery to emphasize the emotions of her protagonist. For months, she lived on location in order to understand the pacing and rhythm of how life was lived back in the 19th century. For Mayfair, the silk, the mountains, and water are part of a woman’s body and represent what the main character is going through, both emotionally and physically. “The biggest challenge I faced was that every day we would have to hike two or three hours in with all the equipment, shoot the scene and hike back out. Due to these limitations, we were forced to make creative and poetic choices about what we shot. All the night scenes you see in my film are lit by a real fire, an artistic idea that was born out of necessity.”
The film explores the heroine’s journey to achieve personal freedom, even though this might cost May her life. The characters of this story may belong to a distant past, however, the struggles it chronicles are sadly still pervasive in many parts of the world and very much present in our contemporary society. Young girls are still being forced into situations beyond their control and many women are often torn between familial duties and personal passions.
The Third Wife won the best screenplay at the Spike Lee Production Fund in 2014.