The shot that breaks your heart comes very near the beginning of The Third Wife.
An egg yolk sits in a dark stone bowl, the hungry and fragile sphere echoed visually by the blackish-orange shadows cast by two bed pillows on a white sheet, bathed in the candlelight of 14-year-old May’s wedding bed. The yolk is the key object in some careful fertility ritual, cast over her as her sale to her well-to-do husband is disquietingly consummated.
You may not realize the wound immediately. But director Ash Mayfair and cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj slowly, painstakingly stack straw atop it over the next 90 minutes, evoking and re-evoking the rich mustard-gold hue of the yolk, it’s geometrical perfection and fragile vulnerability, in compositionally immaculate frames that advance their story in both mood and plot, until eventually you feel the crack. In swelling candle-lit bellies framed by boxy windowsills, in lanterns and nightshade flowers and saffron-colored gobs of half-spun silk, they reassert and reinterpret the reproductive capacity that is the sole source of a woman’s worth in the world the film depicts.
Played by Nguyen Phuong Tra My, May is the latest child bride in this wealthy 19th-century agrarian household in the Vietnamese countryside who navigates this polygamous world as her older sister-wives instruct, often costumed as though to underscore the gradually mounting egg effect. The paler pastel yellow of her robes and dresses would merge quickly with the wedding night’s yolk-and-shadow ochre, if you just stirred a few drops of dark blood into it.
This optical ovum-sorcery is effective in part because of how diligently and easily the yellow end of the palette is interwoven with similarly refined shots built from other zones of the color wheel. The Third Wife is an expressionist masterwork that should screen in the world’s highest-falutin’ museums, not just it’s 6-screen arthouse cinemas.
The yellow-red shadows of May’s wedding night cut abruptly to a close-up of silkworms astride a pile of bright green leaves. Her older wife-sisters wear bolder, darker gowns of blue and black as they busy themselves in a dusty adult world of barns and cows, practicality shuffling through midnight-black shadows from one red lantern to the next. The illicit sexual congress between an older wife and her husband’s son is drenched in pale blue, May’s face framed in the deep, lush green of the bamboo that screens her voyeurism.
These precise, refined postcards are linked in a languid editing rhythm that simulates the yawning pace of pre-industrial farm life. The haunting and subdued score furnished by An Ton That laces it all together and keeps the thing driving painfully forward. This is an accomplished feat of style from a team of filmmakers who have just bought themselves years of impossibly high expectations, especially as The Third Wife is writer-director Ash Mayfair’s feature-length debut.
Beauty without brains doesn’t get you far, of course. And there is a bright and vital intellectual work ethic simmering below all this visual-layer shimmer. This is a challenging and haunting feminist work, a true story no thinking person could consume without experiencing deep rage, empathy, and sorrow.
The visual landscape and language Mayfair’s team craft early on is wielded menacingly and devastatingly over the film’s third act, as May reckons up her options — and the devastatingly large gap between those her child will have depending on its sex at birth — over the latter half of The Third Wife‘s 90-minute runtime.
The window-frame boxes close in around these young women, the camera estranging you from them as their lived proceed and positions shift around the inexorable patriarchal misogyny of their culture and era. The vegetation close-ups from earlier, of fecund jungle leaves and lush bamboo, give way by and by to shots of dried, brown, stick-like plants denuded of all greenery. The teenager who’d watched her older wife-sisters explain the rise and fall of her sexual utility to the master of the house using different sizes of metal bracelet watches the older counterpart she’s displaced don similarly styled jewelery that’s halfway between necklace and collar.
The child’s confused attempts to process the erotic instruction given her by the women her husband married (again) unfold in almost casually cruel fashion. So, too, do their options in maneuvering the rigid order and ever-expanding appetites that constrain and obliterate whatever small independence they enjoyed as children.
This was prefigured in early scenes, not just through the striking and masterful visual dynamism of the film, but also it’s written text. The youngest daughter of the family May was sold into by her father insists that Buddha will make her a man and give her many wives, after the pre-pubescent child’s innocent request that the family buy her a horse instead of saving for another marriage dowry embarrasses her mother at dinner. The adults don’t bother to reprimand her for misunderstanding a woman’s station in their world; the world has reprimands enough in store.
It is a cruelty, in the end, to sit through it all. Would take a real masochist, or at least a teary-eyed romantic wired to enthuse over artful pathos, to find something vaguely like joy in this film? But what joyous cruelty it can be to have such supple hands and imaginative eyes at the lens, and to be steered so cleverly and inexorably through the hopeless bravery it must require for women to navigate a world founded upon treating them as both factory and product.
Maybe The Third Wife doesn’t need to be displayed in museums after all. Maybe it’s a museum into itself. Do take care not to skip any of its dioramas as you pass through, even if many of them will disturb and unsettle you.