There's More To 'The Third Wife' Than First Meets The Eye
The Third Wife, by first-time Vietnamese filmmaker Ash Mayfair, moves with the slow but unstoppable force of the river at the start of the film. The 14-year old May sits quietly in a boat that’s taking her to become the third wife of a rich lord, an older man, at his rural manor. She looks right at us, and it feels like a challenge. It’s the late 19th century, long before the forces arose that led to decades of war in the mid-20th century. But if you’re looking for social arrangements that could lead to war, you’ll find them here.
You can hear the pace and tone of The Third Wife from the singer at May’s wedding.
May sits alone. To our eyes she’s a child stuck in a place and time where she has no choices, no power to shape her own world. When the husband comes to her room that night, he’s not overtly brutal. He doesn’t flaunt his power; it’s just there. He does what he wants; he takes what he wants. In its way, it’s all so elegant and unquestioned.
The Third Wife is exceptionally beautiful. The movie caresses objects and characters. May and the two other wives often wear white and they’re surrounded by the green of the forest and the fields around them. One night, two of the wives’ waft through a bamboo forest in their white dresses. They look like apparitions and it takes your breath away.
And the languid rhythms carry you along, like a dream. No one raises a voice; no one hurries. Even when pregnant May’s water breaks and she goes into labor, the other wives and the women servants calm her down right away. On the surface, at least, it’s a world without upset or trauma, deeply connected to the look and the apparent security of the natural world which surrounds this estate.
The disturbing stuff crawls beneath the surfaces. It’s there to see, unless the elegance of the movie lulls you into believing in its luxury. The wives have a community of their own. They spend time together; they have chores but nothing onerous – that’s all done by actual women servants. The wives are often left to themselves. But everything eventually refers to the husband. The older wives advise May on sex, meaning how to please the master. A major issue has to do with boy children; the master has only one son, and he’s kind of a mess – but over and over, the wives present the master with daughters, and that’s a concern.
May also observes more obvious controls and brutalities. She sees the master supervise a whipping and the abuse of a young servant woman who had unsanctioned sex.
It takes a while, but it grows clear that sex is THE big deal on this manor, and sex is everywhere. May secretly follows wife No. 2 as she meets her lover in the forest. For May the scene is partly instructive – on the possibilities of sex – but it also teaches May that in her world, passion must be hidden. And not just sex, but love, because the chaos of love can break down the barriers that the man in charge needs to maintain his hold on the people he owns. If the lord of this manor can’t put the clamps on love and passion, his entire structure will collapse.
The Third Wife is one subtle movie. It’s so lovely and so charming that it’s easy to overlook what’s going on. At the same time, all that serenity highlights the iron control that holds the women in the place determined by the male head of this big family. The world for these wives is thoroughly comfortable and gracious. They have no needs – except for control of their own lives.