'The Third Wife': Film Review | San Sebastian 2018

San Sebastian International Film Festival
Nguyen Phuong Tra My in 'The Third Wife.'
Child-bride period piece is content to plough familiar furrows.

Vietnamese writer-director Ash Mayfair's feature-length debut won a prize at the Spanish festival, having previously nabbed an award at Toronto.

The plight of a (very) young bride in 19th century Vietnam is touchingly if conventionally dramatized in writer-director Ash Mayfair's The Third Wife. Winner of minor-jury prizes at its first two festivals, Toronto and San Sebastian, this emphatically female-focused affair from an unusual geographical source is guaranteed play at such events over the coming months. An audience-friendly affair which deals with harrowing subject-matter in restrained, tactful and aesthetically entrancing style, it could also plausibly score art-house theatrical play in receptive territories.  

Mining her own family histories for her screenplay, Mayfair — also known as Nguyen Phuong Anh (family name Nguyen Phuong) — took quite a risk in casting a 12-year-old lead. Newcomer Nguyen Phuong Tra My (family name also Nguyen Phuong, but apparently no relation) proves demurely compelling as 14-year-old May, forced to grow up very fast when she becomes the latest spouse of wealthy land-owner Hung (Le Vu Long). She's welcomed by Hung's first two wives, Xuan (Mai Thu Huong May) and Ha (Tran Nu Yen Khe, family-name Tran), and after a prompt deflowering at the hands of her taciturn, brutish husband gradually finds her place in his rambling household. 

Various subplots revolve around Hung's emotionally volatile son, somewhat confusingly named Son (Nguyen Thanh Tam), and his ill-fated betrothal to child-bride Tuyet (Pham Thị Kim Ngan); Hung's headstrong, pubescent daughter Lien (Lam Thanh My), who chafes against the strictures of patriarchy; and the budding lesbian attraction between Xuan and May.

But while the subject matter is potentially melodramatic and the implications incendiary, Mayfair takes a still-waters-run-deep approach, evoking the slow pace of pre-colonial, pre-technological rural life. The tempo is set by the painstaking chronology of silk production, in a film which often cuts from human characters to the doings of silkworms, caterpillars and the like. 

Mayfair has charted a steady path to this feature-length debut: She left Vietnam at 13 to be educated abroad, including in London and New York, and has earned acclaim in theater work as well as compiling a considerable batch of shorts. The Third Wife started its gestation when Mayfair was in the third year of an NYU graduate program, her screenplay nabbing numerous development prizes including the Spike Lee Film Production Award. She has also profited from the input of Vietnam's most high-profile auteur, Tran Anh Hung (husband of and frequent collaborator with Tran Nu Yen Khe), credited as artistic advisor here. 

The Third Wife is thus very much a production of the international incubation system for art-film projects, and what has emerged is very far from distinctive in a stylistic sense — indeed, its safe-hands approach, with its interludes of perfume-ad pastoral prettiness, stood out as distinctly old-fashioned at San Sebastian's New Directors section, dominated by much edgier and wilder fare.

Mayfair's picture feels like the work of a seasoned veteran rather than a newcomer, but this isn't necessarily a compliment. It's sensitively poetic and tremulously delicate to a fault, with every beat seemingly accompanied and underlined by an intrusive score from Ton That An which is heavily freighted with plangent strings and mournful piano notes. 

Production companies: An Nam Productions, Mayfair Pictures
Cast: Nguyen Phuong Tra My, Tran Nu Yen Khe, Mai Thu Huong, Nguyen Nhu Quynh, Pham Thi Kim Ngan
Director / Screenwriter: Ash Mayfair
Producers: Tran Thị Bich Ngọc
Cinematographer: Chananun Chotrungroj
Production designer: Do Trong An
Costume designer: Tran Phuong Thao
Editor: Julie Beziau
Composer: Ton That An
Casting director: Nguyen Thy
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival (New Directors)
Sales: M-Appeal, Berlin
In Vietnamese
No Rating, 96 minutes