Watching The Third Wife – the debut feature of young Vietnamese filmmaker Ash Mayfair – brings mixed feelings.
Set in late 19th century Vietnam, the film is the true story of Mayfair’s great-grandmother’s arranged marriage to a wealthy middle-aged landowner.
Although she was aged only 14 at the time, such arranged marriages were considered normal in those days.
Emerging star Nguyen Phuong Tra My plays the young May in the movie’s title role.
And the luminous young Vietnamese actor is superb as she weathers the tense undercurrents and complex familial ties surrounding the well-off family.
Brought in to provide a son and heir for the family, May soon becomes obsessed about having a baby boy: something the landowner’s previous wife could not manage.
As the third wife, she is pampered for a while, but soon realises her position is one of great uncertainty and instability.
Being so young, she also doesn’t know how far to trust the older and more experienced wives, and as a result she is often on edge with them.
This is despite their attempts to put her at ease about matters of sex, childbirth and domestic politics.
The only people May appears to feel really relaxed with are the landowner’s two young daughters and the servants.
As a result, when she does become pregnant, she remains somewhat aloof: quietly hoping she is carrying a male heir.
The film is both sensual and brutal at the same time: for example, it depicts quite confronting scenes of animal slaughter in tandem with tender love scenes.
However, the picturesque backdrop of the beautiful Vietnamese countryside – along with its ubiquitous paddy fields – and the beautiful sets, make it all worthwhile.
The Third Wife has won numerous awards, including the NETPAC Award at the Toronto IFF in 2018.
It commences on Thursday, July 18, 2019 at Luna Leederville.
By Mike Peeters