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Third Wife, The
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by Jay Seaver

"They don't grow up so fast.In order to do that, it opens with a little bit"
4 stars

"The Third Wife" is the sort of film where the first subtitle doesn't appear for a while and dialogue can be sparse throughout, asking the audience to soak it up as the wispy story plays out. It earns the audience's patience, by and large, and does an impressive job of immersion even as it is built to be seen with a modern eye.

In order to do that, it opens with a little bit of text to set the scene: It's the late 19th century, in Vietnam, and 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phong Tra My) has just become the third wife of a wealthy land-owner. The audience watches her meet her new family on her wedding night, and then start learning the ways of her new life. For some movies, this might be the start of a tale of competition and intrigue, but senior wives Ha (Tran Nu Yen Khe) and Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya) seem mostly friendly, even if she is closer in age to Xuan's daughters Lien (Lam Thanh My) and Nhan (Mai Cat Vi). Ha has more status because she has produced a male heir, Son (Nguyen Thanh Tam), so May naturally hopes that the child she is carrying will also be a boy.

Not much seems to be happening at first, aside from the scene where May and her husband consummate their marriage, but filmmaker Ash Mayfair is good at making the audience look and ponder. She and cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj frame May traveling to her new home in the middle of the river, pointedly alone as the sole passenger on a slender boat, and then framed by much older men at the reception. There's an uncertain distance between her and Xuan's daughters in early shots, and nervous gazes at Ha and Xuan. It's a catalog of ways that May doesn't feel like she fits in or belongs, even as the different scenes show her more integrated into the household It does hit some visual metaphors pretty hard, whether caves or silkworms or enough attention to the nightshade growing all over the landscape that you can't help but wonder who will be poisoned.

One image that lodges in the mind is that of a silkworm in its chrysalis, a physically isolated adolescence that the film's teenagers are given little time to experience. That's the center of the movie, or at least one of them, as the commodification of women is as important as people not having tone to explore before being thrust all the way into adulthood. The two are intertwined - May going straight from being a child to being a bride and mother means that she doesn't even have the briefest period to develop her own self, a cycle one eventually sees from the other side with Lien, where marriage talk starts as soon as she's had her first period. It's not entirely associated with the women, either, as Son is clearly more confused than anybody - though he, naturally, won't face the same consequences that the women would.

The relatively subdued storytelling means one has to look a bit closer at how the actors embody their roles, with Nguyen Phuon Tra My perhaps especially impressive because the filmmakers did not cast an older (but youthful) actress as May; she was cast at the age of twelve and is able to capture both May's intimidation and the particular confidence of a kid who doesn't realize she's in over her head. There's a nice chemistry between her and the other wives, who are differentiated just enough to keep things interesting: Mai Thu Huong Maya makes Xuan a maternal leader, firm but friendly and without malice even when she is clearly asserting herself. Tran Nu Yen Khe's confidence as Ha seems more certain but also more imperiled - she's especially intriguing to watch when May's pregnancy has complications. Ngyuen Thanh Tam is all self-centered adolescent angst as Son, but always sympathetic.

The husband is a bit of a blank, except, perhaps, for the moment when May opts to assert her own sexual agency; it's not about May finding herself in an unusually good or bad situation, but one that was typical at the time and which still reverberates in the present. Mayfair's film can occasionally fall into the arthouse trap of being pretty but abstract at times, but mostly tells its story with empathy and impressive production.

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originally posted: 07/08/19 07:34:37
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