Wednesday, November 14, 2018

HIFF ’18: The Third Wife

It is one of the great scientific injustices throughout human history. Women, especially those married to Henry VIII, have been blamed for not producing a male heir, even though it is only the father who can supply that Y chromosome. May finds herself in a similar dilemma. As the junior-most wife of a wealthy Vietnamese plantation owner, her position depends on her ability to give birth to a boy. The dysfunctional family dynamics and her first stirrings of passion will also confuse May in Ash Mayfair’s The Third Wife (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Frankly, May looks even younger than her fourteen years, so the idea of her marrying anyone is rather disturbing. Nonetheless, she fulfills her wedding night duties well enough to soon be pregnant. She is probably rather fortunate, because the senior wives, Ha and Xuan are quite supportive and protective of her. She also makes fast friends with Xuan’s daughters, Lien who is not much younger then May and spirited eight-or-ten-year-old Nhan.

The passions simmering within May’s new extended family definitely match the hot and humid Vietnamese countryside. This is especially true of the patriarch’s unstable son, who has been secretly carrying on an illicit affair with Xuan that has made him problematically co-dependent. Inevitably, his Werther-like brooding will destabilize their hothouse environment.

The Vietnamese-born, US & UK-educated Mayfair has crafted a wonderfully lush and evocative film. You can just smell the wild flowers (and the deadly nightshade). It is also very steamy, in every sense of the word.

As May, Nguyen Phuong Tra My does indeed look distressingly young and vulnerable, but she also makes a convincing pivot when her character starts to make some cold, hard decisions. Tran Nu Yen Khe is also wonderfully forceful and charismatic as Ha. However, My Cat Vi steals nearly all of her scenes as the wide-eyed, yet surprisingly resourceful Nhan.

Visually, Third Wife is absolutely gorgeous. Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj drinks in the rain forest backdrop and luxuriates in the trappings of 19th Century, fin de siècle wealth and [male] privilege. It is hard to watch the tragedy as it inevitably transpires, but Mayfair holds the viewers in a vice-like grip. She makes you want to immerse yourself in this world, despite its social inequities. Highly recommended, The Third Wife screens tomorrow (11/15) and Saturday (11/17), as part of this year’s HIFF.