Fourteen years old, May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) leaves her family and travels upriver on a ceremonial canoe to meet the man she is to marry.
He is a wealthy silk merchant in 18th Century Vietnam. She will become his third wife.
Writer/director Ash Mayfair has produced an extraordinarily beautiful film which gives a leisurely picture of May’s first year in Master Hung’s household, which includes his two older wives, his elderly father, his son and two daughters.
It is Mayfair’s first film and she has created a small masterpiece, with every perfectly-composed scene unfolding like a pastel-hued painting.
Born and raised in Vietnam, Mayfair went to high school in Australia, studied literature and theatre in England and did a master’s degree in fine arts at New York University.
The Third Wife is based on her grandmother’s tales of old Vietnam and her great-grandmother’s life as a teenage bride, the third wife in a large household.
The film gives an unhurried picture of a peaceful household in an idyllic rural setting, with life conducted according to the rhythms of the seasons and ancient traditions.
The two senior wives, Ha, the first (Tran Nu Yen Khe), and Xuan, the second (Mai Thu Huong), welcome young May with sisterly advice about sex and household politics.
Ha has a grown son, who is soon to be married, but Xuan, to her sorrow, has produced only two daughters.
“Mistress Xuan is not a real lady of the house yet,” confides the housekeeper, “because she hasn’t given any boy to Master Hung.”
May is well aware of what is expected of her. “Let me create the last boy for this family,” she prays to the gods.
On the surface all is quiet and ordered, but under the surface hidden passions are raging.
This is a strictly patriarchal society with no place for nonconformists.
Cinemaographer Chananun Chotrungroi has captured Mayfair’s vision with softly-lit interiors and tranquil scenes of the beautiful countryside, The film is accompanied by haunting music by An Ton That.
The Third Wife is now showing at Luna Leederville.
Watch the trailer…