The Third Wife

Reviewed by Pam Newns

After a superb film festival, Keswick Film Club is back to our regular Sunday evening screenings at The Alhambra. Last Sunday's film was 'The Third Wife' – a tale of the suffocating world of patriarchy set in in 19th century Vietnam, a suitable choice for International Women's Day. 

This was a quiet, elegant film, beautifully shot, showing us the world of a rural Vietnamese community through the eyes of 14 year-old May, sent to marry older landowner Hung. As the third wife in the household she has little status; it soon becomes clear that the only way to secure her position would be to bear Hung a son. Her world is restricted and confined even before she has become a woman and her sexual awakening takes place against a background of subjugation – early on she is told to kneel and crawl across the floor to her husband. May falls into a sisterly alliance with the other two wives, who help her to navigate her new world. She soon falls pregnant, hoping for a son. All the time she observes the lives of the women around her – the second wife, Xuan, who is having an affair with her master’s son, Son; the young girl who is ruined and hangs herself after being blamed for the non-consummation of her arranged marriage because Son rejects her, through no fault of her own.

May's child is born; it is a daughter so her fate is sealed. The film ends with two powerful scenes; May desperately trying to breast feed her daughter to stop her crying and wondering if she should poison her, and Xuan's very young daughter, who had previously expressed a desire to become a man with many wives, taking the scissors to her long hair.

It says much for Vietnamese director Ash Mayfair's skill that The Third Wife doesn't come across as a polemic but rather as a delicate compassionately observed tale of female submission and subjugation. The film is shot in muted hues, several shots through gauze reflecting the feeling of entrapment. Nguyen Phuong Tra My is excellent as May, projecting both her child-like innocence and her growing sexuality as she is attracted to Xuan and becomes a mother. Watching the film is an immersive experience, both in the landscape, a constant presence both aurally and visually, and in the plight of the characters, as they submit to their fate, the women ultimately powerless in the face of their traditional destiny.