Inspired by the history of director Ash Mayfair’s family, The Third Wife is a coming-of-age story in a time when women were rarely given a voice.
Set in late 19th Century rural Vietnam, fourteen-year-old May is given away in an arranged marriage to an older man. May learns that she can gain status and security if she gives birth to a male child. This becomes a real possibility when she gets pregnant. However, her path is fraught with danger when May starts to develop an attraction for Xuan, the second wife. She must either carry on in silence or forge find her own path.
There’s here’s no doubt that The Third Wife has a story to tell, and it does so in a way that evokes the beauty and poise of classics such as The Last Emperor. However, this is a film that will divide its audiences. Many will see it a powerful tale of freedom and choice. Others will see story of child-marriage, oppression, and abuse, wrapped up in pretty set pieces.
The truth is, the past is rarely palatable, and these stories do need to be told. The question, is whether it’s better to tell them as The Third Wife does—as a sensuous and seductive costume drama. Or accept that what we’re seeing—particularly the young girl’s ‘wedding night’—may be important, but it’s not especially entertaining, despite the guile and beauty of the production.
A beautiful film, but a tough watching experience.