Traditional polygamy in a Buddhist home is portrayed with disarmingly natural simplicity and straightforward sexual honesty in The Third Wife. Set in 19th century Vietnam, 14-year-old protagonist May (a magnetic and delicate Nguyen Phuong Tra My), will increase her standing against the two older wives if she gives birth to a son as opposed to a daughter. The older wife who had given birth to a son in her new home is better regarded by the patriarch of the house.
Debut feature director-writer Ash Mayfair and cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj have brilliantly and beautifully sustained an intimate story blended with images of nature in the rural region and some vividly erotic moments that remind us that sex is integral to nature, as is that most miraculous of natural phenomenon, pregnancy. The sexuality expressed is primarily heterosexual but a scene of lesbianic desire is also organically woven into the natural flow.
Though many western viewers will understandably see The Third Wife’s depiction of sexuality as dreadfully oppressive, Mayfair still has a way of showing us that within that sexual conservatism, there was something sacred that impelled such a value system. This made sex sprung from lust or what some call today “hormones’ as something profane. This, of course, is something that the film can certainly open up to very interesting discussion.
The film’s painful imbalance between male power and female power is obvious but The Third Wife also unmistakably addresses the wrenching problem of men compelled to marry those that they too do not love. Males too are subjected to cruelties. Moreover, in May the character’s case, 14 seems might early for a person to truly apprehend what love for the rest of her life truly and deeply means.
More urgently, what such a systemic pattern does to adolescent girls is disturbingly portrayed in a debut feature that masterfully portrays its human story amidst a backdrop of nature as a space of omnipresent serenity. The paradox is haunting as if the anguished lives of mere mortals against that backdrop, are nonetheless, just water droplets in a river. Humans ultimately are one with nature.
The Third Wife
Starts Friday June 28
Edina Cinema, 3911 W. 50th St. & France, Edina