Friday, November 2, 2018

The Third Wife

Director Ash Mayfair on the set

THE THIRD WIFE                B-                   
Vietnam  (96 mi)  2018  d:  Ash Mayfair

Winner of the Gold Hugo (1st place) in the New Directors Competition at the Chicago Film Festival, the film deals with arranged child marriages, and even though frowned upon by law in some countries, the practice is still very much alive and well, whether part of one’s traditional faith and custom, or simply as a way of receiving financial gain, where the impact on the affected child is rarely a matter of concern.  This film is about one such child.  The filmmaker Nguyen Phuong Anh (aka:  Ash Mayfair) was born in Vietnam and left at age 13, educated in London and New York, graduating from Oxford University in English literature, receiving a post-graduate degree from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London for theater directing, while this film is her graduate film in cinema from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, while her screenplay was chosen by Spike Lee as a recipient of the Spike Lee Film Production Fund award in 2014, taking five years to make this film.  One of the principle advisors on the film is Tran Anh Hung whose SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA (1993) was sumptuously beautiful, winner of the Camera d’Or at Cannes, a legendary film that put Vietnamese filmmaking on the map.  Interestingly, the 25-year old lead from that film, Tran Nu Yen Khe (the wife of the director), plays Ha, the first wife in this film, only the second time she’s played in a film that was not directed by her husband (the other was a bit part).  This film shares the same opulence and immaculate beauty, shot by cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj, who was in the early stages of pregnancy during the shoot, offering a lushly sensual poetic lens, giving the film a painterly look, which is the essential ingredient in a near wordless yet contemplative film that seems to flow effortlessly.  Using real locations unspoiled by the touch of civilization, they had to hike into remote mountainous regions for each exterior scene, which included morning fog and mist, creating a timeless effect.  Set in the 19th century in rural Vietnam, the film opens with two canoes quietly paddling down a river surrounded by verdant mountains, which is a picture of beauty and harmony in nature, though we quickly learn one of the passengers onboard is 14-year old May (played by 12-year old actress Nguyen Phuong Tra My), who has been given away in an arranged marriage as payment for her father’s debt.  Framed from May’s perspective (as is the rest of the film), she watches the shoreline pass by, mesmerized by it all in this rich tapestry of green foliage, as her wedding day awaits where she is to become the third wife to an older husband, Hung (Le Vu Long), a wealthy landowner.  As she arrives, she meets the other two wives, Ha, the first wife, and Xuan (Mai Thu Huong), the second wife, and is ornately decorated in the colorful robes of a traditional costume, looking like a figurine doll, sitting alone in a ceremonial feast surrounded by total strangers, completely terrified and intimidated by her new prospective home, not knowing how or where she’ll fit in, as everything seemingly exists in perfect order, feeling she is the only thing out of place. 

Registering themes of escape and transformation in a society that accepts female imprisonment, the illusion of paradise is broken.  In a world where traditions, history, and community are viewed as more valuable than personal independence or freedom, May’s inclinations are to accept her situation with grace and dignity, but in many ways this is a depiction of a beautifully disguised horror film, where the sumptuous exterior color palette with its restrained and aesthetically entrancing style blinds us to the truth that lies within, where an inner conflict with nature becomes a heavy burden carried around by several of the characters, which erupts into instantaneous violence or brutality, as it simply can’t be contained, where disharmony flows right alongside the harmony in a yin and yang relationship.  There’s plenty of emotional inertness in this film as well, with glacial pacing, so some are more likely to respond to this film than others.  Nature is a dominant symbolic force closely tied to spirituality and religion, where spiritual balance means everything in a Buddhist philosophy, where humans strive to balance their interior and exterior lives in order to live in harmony, yet transgressions are severely punished in maintaining order, where several characters in this film are in for a rude awakening, none more than May, who is dispassionately deflowered on her wedding night.  Initially it seems transfixingly beautiful as Hung slurps an egg yolk from her stomach before forcefully mounting and aggressively grinding away, literally having his way with her, showing no hint of interest in her welfare.  In an abrupt jump cut, the director displays a sudden shift to silk worms and caterpillars, perhaps emblematic of living in a cocoon before her sexual transformation, but the blood on the sheets in the morning reveals the consequences of love, in this case, someone pays a brutal price.  Pleasure is for men and men alone.  Whatever hopes or feelings that arise must be quickly abandoned, as women simply don’t matter in this society, they are eternally exploited.  When a servant conceives a child out of wedlock he is publicly flogged and the woman sent to a temple like damaged goods.  No one questions this egregious practice, the message being don’t step out of line.  The other two wives befriend May and try to help her adapt, introducing her to their children, and familiarizing her to this new environment, where they make an effort to welcome her and make her feel comfortable, as if they are allies, and in a perfect world they would be (imagine if they went on strike), but due to the harsh circumstances they tend to look out for themselves.  Hung, meanwhile, says little to nothing to her, makes no effort to get to know her, but visits whichever wife he desires on any given night, moving around as he pleases.  What May notices, shockingly, is Son (Nguyen Thanh Tam), Ha’s oldest son, secretly having an affair with Xuan, the second wife, concealing their pleasure in the lush vegetation of the surrounding forest, fascinated by the passion that she witnesses, though it’s hard to tell what influence this has on her, as it seems to stir something inside, but she keeps it to herself. 

When May gets pregnant, she quickly realizes that giving birth to a boy means a higher status and more favor, which becomes her new stated goal, dreaming and hoping for a boy, even wishing bad thoughts to the other wives, wanting something more for herself.  One telling scene for her happens when Hung announces some extra profits from the sale of a newborn calf, wondering what he should spend it on, with Xuan suggesting her daughters could use some elegant new gowns, as they’re coming of age, which he ignores, preferring a horse for his son, or perhaps putting money aside for his wedding.  This telling scene reveals a woman’s place in society, as their needs are routinely ignored and only the interests of men matters.  Yet in this film, all the males are despicable, which is unfortunate, but they are entirely underwritten and appear more as caricatures or stereotypes, where the emphasis is entirely placed on the women.  Ironically, men are only used for what they represent, not for who they are, kind of like the women being depicted onscreen.  May’s rhythm of life is established through daily routines, like playing with the younger children, carrying dishes, gathering water, and caring for Hung’s aging father-in-law, which constitutes the extent of her contained physical space, where she is obviously capable of so much more, but limits are prescribed by her society, much as they still are today, with nations reeling from the unchallenged authority of a patriarchal society.  When Hung decides to find a young wife for his son, he arranges a new marriage, over the recalcitrant objections of Son, who refuses to participate, as he’s in love with someone else, yet he’s thrown under the bus as well, growing bellicose and belligerent, throwing a temper tantrum on the spot, yet his father insists.  This abrupt act causes May to confess the secret feelings she harbors for Xuan as well, though she’s more of a second mother, perhaps adoring her grace under pressure, believing it is love, but is devastated by her rejection, as there’s simply no place for that in this environment.  When the beautiful young bride arrives, utterly petrified, Tuyet (Pham Thị Kim Ngan), tiny and even younger than May, all dressed in ceremonial attire, yet Son refuses her, rebelling against the traditional authority, which causes huge embarrassment and shame to the young bride, whose father refuses to take her back, leaving without her, forcing her to accept her fate.  By morning, she has taken her own life.  Immediately following all this drama, May goes into labor and nearly dies delivering a baby girl, occurring while surrounded by funeral arrangements being made for the child bride, with the delivery shown in an extremely graphic manner, but survives, as the generational cycle continues.  In a matter of a few months, a young 14-year old girl has had to embrace being a child, a lover, a wife, and eventually a mother, with little time offered to decipher any alternative.  The film’s eloquent visual stylization becomes a character in itself, underscored by a delicate musical score by Vietnamese composer Ton That An, with most of the human drama expressed through close-ups and subtle facial gestures, yet despite the intoxicating aesthetic, there are brutal moments piercing through the façade, for which there are no definitive answers, suggesting we are still at the crossroads.  Having survived the French Indochina War and the Vietnam War, the nation has suffered a terrible price, much of it in terms of life or death, but the absence of female fulfillment registers a strong chord in this film, a brutal truth to reckon with, for which there is no release. 

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