There is a small but critical difference between well-thought-through films and movies too precious for their own good. The Third Wife, Ash Mayfair’s feature debut, is among the latter.
Inspired by country life in Vietnam during the 19thcentury, The Third Wife of the title is May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), a 14-year old child who’s essentially sold to a landowner she doesn’t know. At the bottom of the household totem pole, May’s only option is to get pregnant and have a son. Hung, the husband —and most of Vietnamese society at the time— values boys over girls and polygamy is seen as a way to improve the odds.
Unbeknownst to Hung, serious drama is unfolding under his nose. His first wife is bent on presenting him with a son, never mind her health. Hung’s second wife, Xuan, is carrying an affair with her husband’s first-born son, a teenager whose coddled existence has kept him from coping with adversity. May herself provides the cherry on top by developing a crush on the coveted Xuan. The characters’ gender gives you a clue who pays for the indiscretions and who gets away scot-free.
A short way to describe The Third Wife is as a year’s worth of plot in your average soap opera. The difference lies on the stakes: Physical punishment, banishment and even death are on the table.
Mayfair, who also wrote the script, is very frank about the happenings at the farm to the point of discomfort (the lead actress is actually 14). May’s attempts to navigate the family dynamics and find her place deliver the film’s finest moments: There is little room to maneuver and prayer is her only tool, which is to say she’s hopeless.
The filmmaker makes one significant mistake that defangs the proceedings. Mayfair’s staging is so careful and aesthetically pleasing, the outcome feels airless and pivotal scenes come across as actorly. The Third Wife can be effective if you have never seen a movie about arranged marriages and women treated as trade goods before. Otherwise, it has little to add to the conversation. Two and a half planets (out of five).
The Third Wife opens July 20th at the Broadway Theatre.