The Third Wife

Every culture in the world has one thing in common, and it’s the way they abuse and objectify its women. In Ash Mayfair’s The Third Wife, attention is paid to the late 19th century Vietnam, as fourteen-year-old May (Nguyễn Phương Trà My) is given to the wealthy and affluent Hung (Vũ Long) as his third wife by her father to pay a debt.

Accepting her fate in this arranged marriage, May begins to understand her place in the hierarchy of wives and quickly learns how she can quickly move up the ladder by providing Hung another son. May’s prayers may be answered as she quickly becomes pregnant.

The Third Wife is less a soap opera of catfights between Hung’s wives, but more an understanding of the life and plight of being bought and sold along with the servitude of being a woman in that time and place. One would think this story is about the horrible, abusive, husband, but he is only a minor character. This is May’s story of independence beginning as a young girl, experiencing her first night with Hung, and the bloodstained sheet is prominently displayed showing that she lost her virginity. All seminal events sealing her destiny forever.

“…fourteen-year-old May is given to the wealthy and affluent Hung as his third wife…”

But what place does real love have in May’s heart? Secretly, May is clearly not in love with Hung but relishes the idea of providing him a son. May is infatuated though with Hung’s second wife, Xuan (Mai Thu Hường). This love is complicated by the fact that Xuan is having an affair with Hung’s firstborn son (Nguyễn Thành Tâm Lâm). I suppose this is where the soap opera begins.

This little love triangle is sent into a spiral when Hung forces his son into an arranged marriage. In love with Xuan, Hung’s son can’t find the courage to stand up to his father leading to a tragic explosion of events. Everyone becomes tainted by the unintended consequences of this sacred tradition.

Nguyễn Phương Trà My admirably carries the emotional storyline from beginning to end as a young teen placed in a situation that is not only forced upon her but one she isn’t emotionally ready for. Not only does she blossom into an adult after her marriage, but also struggles as a sexual being as she spies on Xuan’s affair. In the end, May is faced with a decision to live in the safety of this system or embark on a journey of personal freedom.

“…expertly explores the subservience of women in Vietnamese and Asian cultures.”

This is Ash Mayfair’s first feature film and a personal story loosely based on the life of her great-grandmother. She expertly explores the subservience of women in Vietnamese and Asian cultures. All ending on a note of freedom, hope, and change.

Visually, The Third Wife comes off as a wonderful painting. Director of Photography Chananun Chotrungroj beautifully captures rural Vietnam, and the sets are authentic amazing.

If there is a negative, it comes in the over-emoting acting that is commonly associated in Asian films, especially from the men. That aside, Mayfair’s The Third Wife is a powerful reminder that the oppression of women is not strictly a Western problem and everyone—women or men—want to be free to choose their own path in life.

The Third Wife (2018) Written and directed by Ash Mayfair. Starring Nguyễn Phương Trà My, Mai Thu Hường, Vũ Long, Nguyễn Thành Tâm  Lâm. The Third Wife screened at the 2019 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

7.5 out of 10 stars

3 responses to “The Third Wife

  1. I am a korean and can speak english.
    I watched this movie today…
    But I don’t understand what director wants to say…

    Mijangsen is great, but the overall atmosphere is gloomy.

    I still don’t know what I watched….

  2. What happens at the end is unclear to me. May sits alone with her baby in a meadow. The baby won’t take her breast. She picks a spray of deadly nightshade. The film ends there. Do we infer she eats the poison plant and dies? Or will she also try to poison her baby? Or does her unhappy life just go on?

    1. The directed at the end of the screening said it was intentionally left unanswered. I don’t necessarily agree with that.

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