“Sensuous,” “gorgeous, “evocative” — such descriptors are perhaps too easily applied to Ash Mayfair’s The Third Wife, a film that, from its opening frames, seems expressly designed to elicit such praise. A ceremonial canoe bears 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), the bride of the title, to her new home in a cloistered rural estate somewhere in 19th century Vietnam. Soon, we are introduced to her husband, Hung (Le Vu Long), and his first two wives: Ha (Tran Nu Yên-Khê), the mistress of the house, who alone has given birth to a son, and the younger Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya). Given its premise, The Third Wife thus recalls melodramas like Zhang Yimou’s 1992 film Raise the Red Lantern — though for a while, Mayfair’s script underplays the expected power games, placing as much emphasis on the wives’ easy camaraderie as on their unspoken struggles to bear their husband a son and thus gain his favor. In and of itself, this is a promising choice — and it’s one of many that the film is comprised of.
But what The Third Wife lacks is a cohesive, governing sensibility; it has a committee-approved feel that renders individual choices more or less serviceable, but makes the entire affair feel sanded down. (It’s no surprise to learn that the film went through both NYU’s Purple List and Spike Lee’s Production Fund.) The film’s shallow-focus visuals and its general emphasis on physical sensuality should make for a discomfitingly tactile affair. But Mayfair’s images have no heft because they feel so beholden to an external, authorially imposed design — leaving even the film’s most tragic turns unable to draw blood. Though it’s a film built on multiple, emancipatory, anti-patriarchal gestures, The Third Wife gives the impression of a director simply going through the calculated motions.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | Issue 5.