Dir.: Ash Mayfair; Cast: Ngyuyen Phuong Tra My, Tran Nu Yen Khe, Thu Huong Maya, Le Vu Long, Nguyen Tranh Tam; Vietnam 2018, 83 min.
Ash Mayfair (aka Nguyen Phuongh Anh) left Vietnam at the age of thirteen to study film at RADA in London and New York. Her debut is a surprisingly mature and meticulous drama that focuses on the many-layered exploitation of the women in a feudal household in late 19th century Vietnam.
May (12 year-old Ngyuen Phuong, no relation to the the filmmaker), is married at the age of fourteen to feudal lord Hung (Long), and has to share their home with his first two wives Ha (Yen Khe) and Xuan (Huong Maya). May soon becomes pregnant and competes with Ha and Xuan to bear a son to the master. Sadly she fails and gives birth to a daughter, Ha saving her life with an impromptu caesarean carried out with a kitchen knife. Gradually May is drawn to Xuan while Hung’s son (Tanh Tam) rebels against his father and his dominating regime: he refuses to touch his child bride Tuyet during their wedding night – dishonouring her in the eyes of her family. The young girl hangs herself on a tree, overlooking the river. Gradually, May becomes accustomed to the male dominated household and closes ranks with Ha and Xuan. In spite of her youth, she is already resigned to a life with no real choices. Lien, one of Ha daughter’s, cuts off her long hair in protest – but her gesture is only symbolic.
DoP Chananun Chotrumgroj’s camerawork is sublime, impressionism dominates, particularly Monet’s paintings spring to mind in a soft haze of pink, yellow and blue; every frame a jewel box, a new adventure. The mournful piano music scored by Ton That An heightens the melancholic narrative; the souls of the women are slowly drowning in beauty. But even though The Third Wife won prizes all over the globe (Toronto, San Sebastian, Minsk, Chicago and Cairo), there is something missing. Compared with most other newcomers, Mayfair seems already to be the finished article: the main message of her feature is resignation and suffering, there is no rebellion. Somehow one does expect a little wildness from a first film – but The Third Wife, has very little spirit in its perfection. It is comfortably executed, like a minor etude, playing out without sharp edges let alone barbed wire. AS
SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL 2018