May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) lives in late nineteenth century Vietnam where she has been given away at fourteen years of age to a local landowner under the condition that he will take care of her - only she must become his third wife, and bear him a boy child, if all is to go well. She feels some trepidation about this, for she is not much older than her new husband's children, but hopes his other two wives can help her through this. Certainly the second wife, Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya), is a lot more caring, though she has secrets of her own, and the further May travels down this path of a relationship, the more isolated she feels, merely present in the family to make a baby...
Writer and director Ash Mayfair based her debut feature (after a selection of short works) on the life of one of her ancestors who similarly was caught up in this restrictive cycle of tradition that saw women in the Vietnamese society of those days trapped as second class citizens, either landed with giving birth and child-rearing or domestic chores, with nothing else of value to the men who ran things. But of course, May was not a woman when we started the story, and the fact that she was played by a then-twelve-year-old actress made her youth all the more disturbing in the context her character was placed in, a doubtlessly deliberate choice by the filmmaker for maximum unease.
What most struck on a superficial level was how beautiful Mayfair's imagery was, with nature making most of the remarkable visuals as attractive as they were. Yet this was in stark contrast to the emotions of the women and girls we were watching, as nobody would ask them what they wanted out of life, they were merely expected to follow orders, leading to the case of the protagonist, who was essentially caught in a cycle of sexual abuse. Nguyen was very effective as an innocent who even though she has effectively been raped to supply this family with a male heir, retains that innocence for she has no grasp of the crime that has been committed against her.
Time and again the camera returned to the silkworms which were either growing naturally or were being farmed around the area, their alien-to-humans life patterns compared to the impregnation, pregnancy and eventual childbirth May must endure. That their cocoons are used in the manufacture of delicate garments is a by product they suffer for, and we are invited to see the unnatural intervention into the caterpillars' existences of men in the same way that the girl's adolescence has been despoiled, and all with no guarantee that the results will be desirable to the patriarchy, since if the baby is a girl the landowner has no use for her, as not only does he already have female children, but only boys can sire heirs, a fact that has become an obsession in this arrangement.
However, while May does her naïve best to live up to expectations, Xuan is breaking some rules: she is having an affair with another man in secret, their meetings in the forest very much forbidden but also what she needs to get through her figuratively straitjacketed routine back at the house. At least she and May make a bond together, though the girl wants it to go further as she is romantically attracted to the only person who has made an effort to be friendly to her, so of course that goes precisely nowhere, partly because she is already pregnant at the point she admits this, and partly because Xuan cannot accommodate her. Even with the camera lingering on flowers, water, animals and so on, the final scenes are as harsh as the natural world is captivating, with the worst-case scenario playing out for May. Only the section with one of the younger girls cutting her hair as an act of rebellion points to the future when emancipation would loom far larger than it did here, but for May you fear it will happen far too late. For many, The Third Wife would be too restrained, but it did make its themes carefully memorable. Music by An Ton That.
[Eureka's Blu-ray has the trailer and a booklet featuring an interview with the director as extras.]