Monday, May 13, 2019

Beauty and budding feminism combine in Ash Mayfair's gorgeous 19th Century tale of rural Vietnam life, THE THIRD WIFE

It has been awhile since we've seen quite so much beauty and elegance -- all of it seeming more off-the-cuff natural than overly planned -- in a movie coming out of Vietnam. The Scent of Green Papaya (from all the way back to 1993) comes to immediate mind, though there may have been other films TrustMovies has missed or forgotten.

In any case, viewers attuned the world's natural beauty, as well as to what I'd call an Asian penchant for subtlety and grace, will want to take in THE THIRD WIFE, a new film -- her first full-length, after several shorts -- from the Vietnam-born, NYU film-educated Ash Mayfair, pictured at left. This is as lovely, graceful and finally full-bodied feminist a work of art as I've seen in some time.

For all its beauty and seemingly peaceful elegance, the movie left me not a little surprised and oddly uplifted by the strong, firm finale which is, in its own way, every bit as elegant and subtle as what has come before.

It may seem almost amazing to us westerners how pre-determined were the lives of women at the time the movie takes place (the late 19th Century), as well as how easily the women we see made themselves fit so securely and completely into the groove of patriarchy, while still discovering their own ways of rebelling and/or satisfying their needs. And yet, there is maybe not so much difference between what we see here and what we saw in a movie like the recent Lizzie, that offered up the kind of closed-off-to-women life that resulted in the infamous Lizzie Borden murders. The place and the culture may differ, but patriarchy still rules.

The tale Ms Mayfair tells in The Third Wife is of a 14-year-old rural girl named May (the lovely and quietly cryptic Nguyen Phuong Tra My, above) who is made to wed a wealthy landowner. The movie begins as she is carried via boat (below) to her new home, and then meanders along as May learns how to deal with her place in the hierarchy of the life of her new husband.

Wives number one and two make their place known, and yet they do not seem actively against our newcomer, as we might expect, were the film made by westerners. There is a grandfather and grandchildren, too, and both male and female servants who are probably as close to slaves as can be imagined -- and still not matter so much. Except to the slaves, of course.

Performances are on the quiet side but very real from all concerned, and the filmmaker (as both writer and director) takes care to let us see the ways in which our women manage to circumvent standard mores, whether sexually or, finally, appearance-wise. (The finale, when mulled-over post-viewing, practically begs for a sequel.)

The film's most potent sequence involves an arranged marriage in which the husband is not at all happy -- for good reason, yet it is his bride who must suffer the consequences. Even as the strictures of the patriarchy pile up, so obedient and subservient seem the women, and so quiet and even-handed is the work of the filmmaker that when resistance finally arrives, simple and even mild as it might elsewhere appear, here it packs a punch that any of our ham-handed super-hero movies might envy. I'd love to learn what happens to these women, but whatever Ms Mayfair chooses to do next, I'm on board to view it.

From Film Movement and running 94 minutes, the movie opens this Wednesday, May 15, in New York City at Film Forum, and will then play another 30 cities around the country, including the Los Angeles area on May 24 (at Laemmle's Royal and Playhouse 7) and here in Boca Raton on June 7 (at the Living Room Theaters). Click here, then scroll way down, to see if and when the film will be coming to a theater near you.

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