THE THIRD WIFE gets 7/10 Matrimonial bonds

Directed by Ash Mayfair

Starring Nguyen Phuong Tra My, Mai Thu Huong Maya, Nguyen Nhu Quynh Le


In 19th century Vietnam, a young girl becomes the third wife of a wealthy rural landowner. Separated from her home, May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), must work out the politics of the household, and what she herself desires from life.

Perhaps there is more to admire in The Third Wife than to actually like. That sounds like harsh criticism, but this is certainly a film that disassociates the head from the heart when viewing it. There’s an undeniable beauty here, with the film’s precise use of the camera, beautiful scenery and immaculate costuming. Its luscious setting belies the oppressiveness of the position, if not in terms of actual physical brutality, but the beliefs that define them. Here women are extensively chattel, and their worth determined by their child bearing. Director Ash Mayfair wastes no expense in communicating this position, rarely bludgeoning audiences with it, but rather weaving it into the day to day fabric of the piece. It’s seen as an accepted norm, despite the tragic effects that it has on many of the characters. There’s a precision in her storytelling, underlying the apparent languid pacing, as each scene makes the most effective use of time that it can to convey the tale. Hence The Third Wife is capable of conveying a lot narratively in its short run time.

Yet in its languid style and gentle narrative drive, The Third Wife can occasionally seem like a more leaden paced film that suddenly lurches into life, as all the underlying tensions suddenly surface to often tragic effect. It is also let down by the ending, as the precision of imagery the director has so carefully employed to this point is subverted for more artistic intentions. Mayfair undercuts her own work here, muddying the water, precisely when a clarity of message is required. A pity, as it detracts from what is otherwise a powerful piece.

Newcomer Nguyen Phuong Tra My gives a transcendent performance as May, giving the character a believable naivety and enthusiasm, while also conveying the fear and the frustration at her situation. The audience lives and breathes May’s life, in an oft times voyeuristic fashion.

A beautiful debut from director Ash Mayfair, brought to the screen with a talented cinematic eye, The Third Wife certainly stands above many period pieces because of that talent, but just lacks the clarity of message to truly make it great.


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