Vietnamese Director Defends Award-Winning Film After Controversy Over Intimate Scenes Involving Teen Star

COURTESY OF FILM MOVEMENT
'The Third Wife'

Ash Mayfair's ‘The Third Wife’ has faced criticism for scenes involving then 13-year-old Nguyen Phuong Tra My and her much older co-stars, but the filmmaker says the movie focuses on women’s rights and challenges the country's "patriarchal traditions."

Vietnamese director Ash Mayfair has issued a defiant defense of her debut feature, The Third Wife, following controversy over intimate scenes involving the film’s young female star that led to the production being withdrawn from cinemas in the country.

“I am speaking up for artists and for the right to create,” Mayfair told The Hollywood Reporter, in her first public comments since the film was withdrawn from cinemas in Vietnam last Tuesday.

“This [controversy] cannot make Vietnamese artists afraid to express their viewpoint.”

The Third Wife’s release in Vietnam on May 17 sparked debate in the country’s National Assembly as well as across both traditional and social media, with much of the focus on intimate scenes involving actress Nguyen Phuong Tra My and her much older co-stars. My was 13 at the time of shooting.

As these debates raged, Mayfair and her producers decided to withdraw the film from cinemas after four days, pointing also to their concerns following a stream of online abuse directed at the star and her mother.

“We didn’t do anything wrong and we broke no law,” said Mayfair. “They can’t attack us on those grounds so there have been attempts to smear the ethics of the actress’ mother, publishing her personal details on line and saying she had sold her daughter for money."

She added that she anticipated the reaction the film would have in Vietnam especially amongst conservative groups. "These questions are open for debate and I have no problem with that. We talk about women’s rights and we are very critical about patriarchal traditions that have been in the country for centuries,” she said. 

Mayfair said both My and her mother had been on local Vietnamese television to support the film, as well as calling for calm on social media.

“I talk to them every day and they are proud of the film,” she said. “This [abuse] is a silencing tactic.”

The Third Wife — the Ho Chi Minh City-born, New York University-trained Mayfair’s first film — follows the path taken by a young woman in 19th century Vietnam as she enters an arranged marriage with a much older man, becoming his third wife.

Vietnamese government officials initially accused the filmmakers of breaking the country’s labor laws on the use of minors. In turn, the filmmakers pointed to the fact that all aspects of the production had been passed by the relevant authorities and that the film had also been passed for screening.

Following the movie's four-day run in Vietnam, the filmmakers were fined around $2,000 for failing to make three cuts to the production, as initially requested by the Vietnamese censors. Mayfair has been invited to resubmit the film for approval but has decided against making further cuts.

The Third Wife is currently screening in around 30 cinemas in North America after making its debut at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it picked up the Netpac Award.

Since then, the film has also picked up awards at festivals in Chicago and San Sebastian, and has been met with wide critical acclaim, with THR's reviewer Neil Young writing that the film was "sensitively poetic and tremulously delicate to a fault."

The Third Wife is set for release in Australia and Japan and will continue to travel the world’s festival circuit, according to Mayfair.

The director stands by her decision to screen the film in Vietnam, despite the controversy, revealing it gave her the chance to show her grandparents a story that was based on their own family history.

“We had to try, even though we knew we could be attacked by a lot of conservative viewpoints,” said Mayfair. “This is a part of our history that is very dark and this kind of history is perpetuating itself in Vietnamese society still. There are so many artists, and specifically female artists, who don’t think they can speak out. So I feel that I have done my part."

She added: “The film only screened for a short time [in Vietnam]. But I never thought my little film would get a wide release. People want to see it and have responded to it and that’s because the message of the film is so strong. I am not surprised at all that this would make some people very nervous."