The Third Wife may tell another story about a repressed, frustrated wife, but at least it’s told with more style and less hysteria than usual. True, writer-director Ash Mayfair is very aware that there’s not much positivity to be found in 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) becoming the third wife of an older, wealthy landowner. She’d just rather tell a story of how women tended to cope with their status in rural 19th century Vietnam in all its beauty and cruelty. Sometimes that means other things that should be a priority, like plot and motivation, are somewhat left behind.
What will be unusual to modern viewers is how common May’s situation is. We learn little about her before she comes to her beautiful new home, but it’s clear that people are used to such new additions, including the other wives, even if it is kind of awkward to display the bloody wedding night sheets the day after the wedding. As for the night before, The Third Wife takes a different, more complex route. Rather than depicting May’s deflowering as a mundane necessity stripped of passion, Mayfair gives us something that has the potential for pleasure, with closeups of the caterpillars feeding in the greenery just outside their room. Clearly, May has been transformed in more ways than she realizes, and the rest of the film tries to decipher just what she’ll become.
She hopes at least in one instance to become what others expect of her, which is the mother of a son. The wives all hope and wish for it, and their status depends on it, with second wife Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya) not even considered a true lady of the house, having given birth only to daughters. When May becomes pregnant (remaining so for much of the film), the only bright future open to women in her world becomes a tantalizing possibility. The Third Wife is keenly aware of the injustices that world is built upon, even as it revels it all its sensuous delights, both in the nature surrounding it and whatever the humans in the midst of it manage to find. The film refuses to forget that in a time and place so ritualized, especially when it comes to female subjugation, any real protest or escape is nearly unthinkable.
Perhaps that’s why there’s an unexpected sense of solidarity among the wives and many of the women in general, even is quiet rivalries do arise as they are constantly reminded of their secondary status, even if they do manage to produce a son. May also gets remarkably good advice on her body, and how she should find and emphasize her pleasure before her husband’s. However, certain necessities are unavoidable, such as pretending she enjoy sex so their husband will, even if May is reassured that someday her deception will become reality. Perhaps they underestimate her, as May does seem to make progress in that area on subsequent time spent in her husband’s bed.
May only starts to feel passion for someone of her choosing after she discovers her fellow wife Xuan is having an affair, and even begins to believe that there could be possibilities in her life. If May ever forgets that path is fraught with danger, she’s quickly reminded after seeing countless examples of others who step outside the strict boundaries where they’re expected to live their lives. Another child bride much like May is rejected by her husband, then her own family after they discover her marriage remains unconsummated, with devastating consequences. If May manages to avoid this fate, it’s merely that luck dealt her a better hand.
It’s difficult to imagine anyone but the arthouse crowd enjoying the slow, incremental ways May comes of age. The Third Wife never forgets that she begins the film as a child, and remains so for most of it, even in the latest stages of her pregnancy. She finds more kinship with Xuan’s young daughters than her fellow wives, who view her less as a sister than as another daughter. Even at least some of the audience The Third Wife is meant for might be turned off by how little payoff there is even in what is supposed to be the central relationship, that of Xuan and May. In the end, the film suggests these women and those like them will manage the best they can, in a cycle that will continue. Until, that is, it doesn’t.