Credit: 3388 Films
Before We Vanish by Joshua Polanski Featured Film

The Last Wife — Victor Vu

December 15, 2023

The latest Vietnamese box office sensation from Victor Vu, one of the country’s most prolific directors, The Last Wife teases the gaping hole for genre-defying historical romances in the international box office appetite. Set in the feudal 19th century Nguyen dynasty in Northern Vietnam, Vu adapts The Lake of Vengeance by author Hồng Thái and allows the film’s star, Kaity Nguyễn — here playing Linh, the third (and most recent) wife to an old and infertile provincial governor — to passionately propel the film across a variety of genres, including the sweeping historical romance, drama, comedy, and even mystery-thriller.

But there’s no doubt that the film’s romance is its center. Linh loves another man, the more age-compatible and handsome Nhân (Thuận Nguyễn). Because her husband communicates exclusively through abuse and manipulation, her love affair never comes across as disloyal or a sign of poor character. The affair does, however, still carry the consequences of female infidelity in a patriarchal feudal system. She not only learns to navigate her abusive husband, if that’s even possible, but also has no option except to put up with his other two wives. First Wife (Kim Oanh) is particularly conniving as she frequently puts down and even attacks Linh for her humble roots in a local crabbing village. The stern Second Wife (Dinh Ngọc Diep) treats Linh as a human, even if it’s difficult to tell for most of the runtime whether or not she does so only to undermine the power of First Wife or not. In one early scene, First Wife asks over a meal and in front of Linh’s seven-year-old daughter and their shared husband, “Third Wife, last night did you receive a plentiful load?” Second Wife adds, “[Plentiful] doesn’t matter. What matters is if it was thick or watery.” The inappropriate comments set up the way the entire house thinks of Linh: as a vessel for men, decorated with pretty flesh. 

An earlier 2023 film, How to Have Sex, unsettled this writer due to its onslaught of rape and manipulative sex and without offering any view of fulfilling consensual sex. Vu’s romance provides a meaningful antidote to this with its two opposing displays of sexual activity. With her governor husband (Quang Thang), Linh lays flat on the bed and stares anywhere other than at the odious man atop of her. She never resists his advances, at least not verbally (expressively is another story). There’s even a rope-loop dangling at the foot of her bed for her to hang her feet after he ejaculates in her, in order to increase the chances of conception (19th-century science was crazy); she looks at the loop with eyes that also see a noose. In a sexy and powerful contrast, she enjoys pleasurable sex with her adulterous partner; he’s gentle, patient, and strong, where the old man was harsh, hurried, and weakening. Most importantly, she clearly feels erotic pleasure and desire with Nhân as he notably refuses to prioritize his pleasure at the expense of hers, responsive to her sexual feelings. The fulfilling (and quite sexy) sex, of course, also aids the film’s sensual and aesthetic appeal.

Perhaps predictably, Linh’s marital regret reeks of a relationship that was never happy or mutually beneficial, and that indeed turns out to be precisely the case, as it’s revealed shortly after she runs into Nhân for the first time in seven years: Linh only married the governor to save her father from draconian legal punishment for stealing a chicken to feed his dying wife. But her self-denying expression of love for her father is not the film’s only representation of selfless love. Nhân’s entire modus operandi assumes a love that knows only how to give to another. When the two of them end up in a surprisingly thrilling mystery subplot involving the governor’s sharp and slippery bookkeeper (Anh Dung), Nhân immediately puts his future at risk to protect his lover. 

This leads to two significant action scenes that surprise in their effectiveness. The first makes use of an diegetic ticking clock and, between the two, viewers are presented with a diverse palette of action choreography featuring hand-to-hand combat, various weapons, a seamless integration of domestic objects, and even fire. Dire consequences are put on the line for the combatants; each fight feels like it actually means something. The aftermath of the combat on the survivors even challenges their own understandings of self after becoming violent people for the first time.

At its best, The Last Wife calls back to a different era of filmmaking. Vu was born in North Hollywood and certainly knows his way around Hollywood filmmaking. He was even accused of plagiarizing the typically Hollywood picture Shattered (1991), directed by Wolfgang Petersen, with his 2010 film Inferno. Seeing as this is his 17th film, the ugly and potentially anti-art incident clearly hasn’t slowed him down in the slightest. And we should be thankful that it hasn’t because The Last Wife is a sharp film with a level of dramatic consequence that one normally won’t find in historical romances of comparable popular appeal with their algorithmically designed and tidy happy endings. The enveloping score from Christopher Wong recalls an earlier period of Hollywood filmmaking where filmmakers weren’t afraid of indulging melodramatic flourish or excessively emotionally directive; the music is inseparable from its romantic, and even arousing, intentions to play to big emotions. To put that another way: the Romantic movement poet William Wordsworth described the goal of good poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” and by Wordworth’s standards, The Last Wife’s romance is properly and thrillingly Romantic.

DIRECTOR: Victor Vu;  CAST: Kaity Nguyễn, Thuan Nguyen, Quang Tháng, Kim Oanh;  DISTRIBUTOR: 3388 Films;  IN THEATERS: December 8;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 12 min.