Film Movement Movie Review: The Third Wife (2018)

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Taking us back to a time when a woman's worth was entirely dependent upon her role as a dutiful wife, a passionate lover, and her ability to deliver male children, Ash Mayfair draws inspiration from her female ancestors who were married into arranged polygamous unions when they were little more than girls for her feature film debut, The Third Wife.

While stylistic and narrative echoes of films like Raise the Red Lantern and especially The Piano are evident on the screen right from the start, perhaps one of — if not the film than Mayfair's — biggest offscreen influences is none other than David Fincher.

Recalling an NYU lecture in an interview about the film and her process, Mayfair notes that he gave students the invaluable advice to, as she says, "tell your story more than a thousand times to everyone...[as] the fat will eventually fall away and you are left with the meat of what really matters."

And all it takes is the first ten minutes of her understated film — centered on a fourteen-year-old girl's coming-of-age and eventual sexual awakening after she becomes the third bride of a wealthy landowner in nineteenth century Vietnam — for us to see how much she's taken Fincher's advice to heart and for better or worse.

Packing each frame with literal and symbolic meaning care of hypnotic visuals, on the one hand, Mayfair's ability to show vs. tell us what our lead is feeling emotionally is especially fitting because this isn't a setting in which women were free to share their thoughts. At the same time, Wife could have also benefited from giving the audience a helping hand, especially considering the fact that it introduces us to virtually all of its main characters during one dinner table scene early on.

Filled with not only a half dozen new principal players but also foreshadowing, it's the definition of chaotic. Using context clues to try and piece together just who everyone is in relation to one another (to the point that I had to watch the scene twice), even if you're able to correctly deduce who everyone is on the first go round, you're so busy making mental connections that the scenes with key exchanges that take place immediately after lose some of their impact.

Needless to say, as a fan of long sentences, I innately understand the urge to just get all of the information out there at once but because our understanding of so much in Wife hinges on that early sequence, a more traditional introduction or segue would've strengthened Ash Mayfair's otherwise powerful film all the more.

Winner of the Spike Lee Production Fund in 2014, the lushly photographed feminist film might be a period piece but it still has far reaching, real world applications, both abroad where child brides are still forced into arranged and/or polygamous marriages and also here in the states where a regression of women's rights is currently taking place at a near frantic pace.

The latest thought provoking female helmed offering from Film Movement, The Third Wife is sure to give viewers much to discuss later on. Whether it's where our young heroine, May — played with poise, presence, and startling maturity by then twelve-year-old Nguyen Phuong Tra My — finds herself drawn to an impossible object of desire or another young girl's confession that she prayed to Buddha to make her a man, Mayfair drives home her points in a variety of ways.

Growing bolder as it heads toward its inevitable emotional conclusion, though full of admittedly important and gorgeously lensed moments, some scenes — especially ones involving characters we barely know — do feel more like feminist sign posting than a gradual plot progression.

As poetic as The Third Wife is cumulatively, much like the aforementioned dinner scene, it's hard to deny that the film would've been far more cohesive from a dramatic perspective if, rather than racing through its plot points, Mayfair had focused more on the development of its leads including May who remains an enigma from start to finish.

While the last thing you want to say — particularly as a carnivore, let alone a film fan disagreeing with Fincher — is that it's best to leave a little of the fat on, in the end, Mayfair's otherwise undeniably lyrical, impressive Campionesque debut might've been better served by giving us all little bit more to chew on . . . not only after the film but throughout.

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