Polygamy and child marriage has been around for a long time, with families in many cultures marrying off their young children (usually daughters) to reduce the amount of dowry, or rich powerful men marrying several wives to ensure that they have a decent amount of offspring, preferably males, to continue their legacy. The Third Wife has given me a taste of these alarming situations, along with the oppression and seduction that has occurred over time, and is still happening today. It was as if the director was rubbing salt into our open wounds.
The Third Wife is directed by Ash Mayfair. Set in 19th century Vietnam, our attention is focused on May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), a 14-year-old teenage bride who is married to the estate’s owner Hung (Le Vu Long) as his third wife. With the two older wives, Ha (Tran Nu Yen-Khe) and Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya), treating her like their sister and reminding her of her position, she quickly eases into her role as a wife.
Be respectful and docile, be submissive and lady-like; do not question—these are all the rules that are taught to May. She learns how to climb up the hierarchy of wives quickly, by providing her husband a son. She even prays for it to occur fervently when she attends temple.
With her newly discovered sexual desires, attractions towards her second ‘sister’, and secrets about an affair, May realises that things may not go as planned.
Ash Mayfair cleverly portrayed the twisted and abhorrent sacred traditions that many cultures share. Even with very little dialogue and a very short time frame throughout the movie, the emotions jumped out at me from the screen. The joy, happiness, purity, serenity, sadness, disgust, doubt, and lust; they were all portrayed to the audiences through the actions and facial expressions of the actors, and the music and sceneries used throughout the movie.
We see a child being forced into a situation she isn’t emotionally, mentally, or even physically prepared for. A child as a wife, performing her wifely duty. A child taking care of other children. A child pregnant, risking her health during the process of giving birth. We see the need for wives to please their husbands; for females to get married––their only obligation.
This is a shocking movie that takes us through topics that are still viewed as taboo. It is inhumane for anyone, female or male, to experience oppression, and for anyone to be treated as ‘higher rank’ in comparison to another individual.
From a more ominous perspective, I question the director’s usage of a child actor to film the sexual explicit scenes without using a body double. The horrors felt by the audience when May went through these situations were heart wrenching.
Ash Mayfair directed and produced an artistic, painful, and beautiful movie. She presents May’s story with elegance and grace, using the stories told to her by her great grandmother. For a movie where the men are in power, the experiences felt by the audience are inherently female.
I was drawn in by The Third Wife as soon as it began. It is an intoxicating, captivating and disturbing journey, that I cannot wait to go through again.
The Third Wife is in cinemas now!