My first option this week was Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, which arrived with glowing plaudits as an American high-school comedy that was supposedly fresh, original and funny. That sounded about as likely as the platypus but it was something I needed to see with my own eyes.
Alas, I must have gone to a different movie with the same title because all I saw was another American teenage slob film in which the characters were ethnically diverse but uniformly obnoxious. There was the usual display of wealth porn, the usual conflict between nerds and jocks, the usual mixture of vulgarity and gross sentimentality. The only variation was that one of our heroines was a trainee lesbian. Presumably this was the “original” bit.
The story concerns two brainy, hardworking students who suddenly realise that the party animals in their class have been accepted into the best universities, just like them. The girls are left with only one night before graduation to do all the decadent stuff the others have been doing for their entire school careers ie. get drunk, get stoned, get laid.
The message of this film is that rather than working hard at school it’s better to party non-stop. Apparently they’ll still welcome you into Yale and Harvard. Most importantly, you’ll be considered cool by your peers and avoid the painful stigma of being labelled a high-achiever. It says something about the United States today that this movie won the approval of 97% of critics on the Rotten Tomatoes website.
Booksmart is what passes as a “coming-of-age” film in the America. The Third Wife by Vietnamese-born director, Ash Mayfair, is a movie that shows us a time and a place in which the transition from childhood to adulthood is sealed with marriage, not self-indulgence.
It’s Vietnam in the late 19th century, and the story begins with 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) on her way to her wedding. She is to become the third wife of Hung (Le Vu Long), a wealthy landowner. The first thing that strikes us is how Chinese everything seems – which shouldn’t be surprising in a country that spent so long under Chinese domination. By this stage the Vietnamese have freed themselves from the Qing emperor, only to fall under the yoke of the French.
None of this seems to touch Hung’s estate which is set in an idyllic rural landscape and frozen in a set of traditions inherited from Confucianism. It’s a rigidly patriarchal society in which women are treated as property, being the possessions of their fathers until ownership is transferred to a suitable husband. The landscape may be romantic but marriage is a business transaction in which bride and groom meet for the first time at the altar.
The Third Wife is a conspicuously beautiful film. The views of the countryside are breathtaking, the interior scenes shot with an intimacy that brings us into the room with the characters and sometimes into their heads. The cinematography by Chananun Chotrungroj is delicate as a watercolour on silk.
The story is hardly more than a series of brushstrokes that slowly create a nuanced picture of life in Hung’s household. As the third wife, May has to accept her subordinate status to wife number one, Ha (Tran Nu Yen Khe) and wife number two Xuan (Maya Mai Thu Huong). They are generally kind to her, helping her out with advice about everything from domestic chores to the marital bed.
May watches everything, learning about the hierarchies and alliances in the family. She discovers their secrets, but also begins to understand that a woman’s chief value is as a bearer of children. Ha maintains her superior status because she is the only wife to have given Hung a son. Xuan may be more attractive and good-natured, but she has produced three daughters in succession.
May is determined she will have a son, revealing a hidden streak of ambition in her character. She may be a picture of innocence and naïvete, but she watches and waits, wondering how to advance her own cause.
In a film packed with subtle symbolism, most notably in comparing human lives to those of silkworms, Mayfair offers us a range of possible plot devices. What use will May make of her discovery that Xuan has been having an affair with Ha’s son? What will happen with those blossoms of deadly nightshade that turn up in scene after scene? Where is her own sexual awakening leading her?
Such questions nag at us gently as the narrative drifts on, given a hint of suspense by May’s drawn-out pregnancy. Beyond the orderly charade one feels the unfairness of this life, but it’s important not to view the story solely through 21st century eyes. Those marriage arrangements that appear so oppressive are also a path to power and privilege for the wives.
There is, however, another scene that shows what can happen when an arranged marriage goes wrong. Being a 21st century woman herself, Mayfair ultimately cannot endorse the profound lack of freedom her female characters endure. She has argued this is the reason the film proved so contentious in Vietnam that it was pulled after only four days. The controversy was superficially about the depiction of May as a sexual being, but the real friction may have sprung from the movie’s feminist undertones. None of this has hindered its progress on the film festival circuit, where rejection at home is taken as an international badge of honour.
The Third Wife
Written & directed by Ash Mayfair
Starring Nguyen Phuong Tra My, Le Vu Long, Tran Nu Yen-Khe, Maya Mai Thu Huong, Nguyen Nhu Quynh, Lam Thanh My, Nguyen Thanh Tam
Vietnam, rated MA 15+, 94 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 13 July, 2019