Whereas the vast world of Asian cinema making its way to the US usually hails from China or Japan, freshman filmmaker Ash Mayfield's origins are in Vietnam. It's there that she sets her debut work, The Third Wife.
It's sometime in the 19th century, a combination of traditional aesthetics, arts and architecture and a rapidly changing world. In some rural area of Vietnam, a 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My—who, despite her recent foray into film, is easily the best performance) is wed to an uber-rich silk farmer/merchant. Sex and stuff happens. May is the man's third wife and new to the concepts of adulthood, particularly the sexual, but his other wives form sisterly bonds with May, and advice both good and bad is proffered.
Let it never be said that Mayfield's sense of visual storytelling is lacking. The Third Wife charms and astounds visually from scene to scene, be it the lighting and camera angles of a delicate yet jarring scene wherein May loses her virginity, or something as simple as feet cooling in a stream. All the while, the lifecycle of silk worms plays out beautifully, a parallel to May's own metamorphosis.
Outside of the visual, however, The Third Wife drags. May learns the ropes of her new phallocentric lot in life, picking up lessons from her sister wives—with whom her scenes are often the most interesting—and getting pregnant, but these things happen far too slowly or inconsequentially. Perhaps this is meant to pace us, and though slow burn can spell beauty in film, here, more often than not, the next scene or piece of information dangles in the distance too long and resolutions are doled out at a frustrating rate. This feels self-indulgent rather than worthy of patience, and if the ultimate payoff is that it sucked to be a woman at that time, we definitely agree, but it's not something that is ever addressed meaningfully.
Thus, beauty or not, The Third Wife sort of fizzles out toward the end and leaves far more questions than answers. May sorta-kinda experiences an awakening, but neither she nor her sister wives captivated us enough for it to feel like that big a deal. The Third Wife pretty much goes nowhere.
+Beautifully shot; the aesthetics
The Third Wife
Directed by Mayfield
Jean Cocteau Cinema, R, 96 min.