Sunday, November 25, 2018

230. Vietnamese director Ash Mayfair’s debut feature film “The Third Wife” (2018) (Vietnam) based on her original story: Gorgeous cinematography, interesting visual allegory, female characters and actresses add value to a film that ought to make Vietnam proud!

Debut films of several directors worldwide have often been unforgettable, even when compared to their later works:  Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, Steven Spielberg’s Duel, Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Silence of the Sea, Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Claude Chabrol’s Handsome Serge, Bertrand Tavernier’s The Watchmaker of St Paul...the list goes on.  That stamp of unmistakable awesome standards of filmmaking is apparent in Ash Mayfair’s debut feature film The Third Wife.

Within minutes of the film’s opening credits an observant viewer gets a clue of the quality of the film that follows—intelligent use of visual editing in presenting the title of the film and the aesthetic and delicate balance between silence and music on the soundtrack. The Third Wife is an original tale written by the film’s director. It is set in the 19th century Vietnam involving a rich nobleman living comfortably far away from the towns, with a retinue of servants, three wives of different ages, their progeny, and his father. The nobleman’s writ is the law in this remote household.  The film is set in a time frame in which men made the rules, when child marriages were acceptable, and when the birth of a boy was held at a premium for the parents over that of the birth of a girl.

May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) as the 14-year old third wife

The title character of the film, May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), is a 14-year-old child bride who has to travel by boat to reach her future husband’s abode.  She is welcomed by the entire family and household staff with pomp and feasting. The first wife Ha (Tran Nu Yen-Khe, who had earlier graced two significant Vietnamese films Cyclo and Scent of the Green Papaya) and the second wife Xuan (Mai Thu Huay Maya) welcome May with genuine warmth. The film narrates the tale economizing on spoken words but revealing much more visually by the brilliant camerawork of the lady cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj, twice a winner of the Nestor Almendros (of Days of Heaven fame) award for cinematography. If the Spanish/Cuban maestro was alive today, he would have been delighted with the mastery of the visual elements from start to finish in The Third Wife.

The tale weaved by writer/ director Ash Mayfair, deals with the child bride’s interactions with the family members of various age groups over a period of approximately a year, learning quickly that to gain favour of her husband she has to bear a son and not a girl. Ms Mayfair’s tale is often visually edited to link her tale with the allegorical of life cycle of the silkworm—caterpillar, cocooning, fresh cocoon, cocoon with pupae, and finally a silk moth.  Why the silkworm? Evidently nobles of 19th century Vietnam saw silk as a valuable income source. And lots of silkworm pupae are killed while preparing the cocoons for making the silk threads. The tale of the film has obvious parallels between the mute silkworms and the human characters.

The pregnant third wife spends cordial time with the first and second wives

...and cordial interactions in the evening indoors.

The film has a predominantly a female production crew (writer/director, cinematographer, editor, etc.) and naturally the perspective is from a female viewpoint. Yet the feminism in the film is subtle, only making a silent but powerful statement towards the end.  Bereft of spoken words, the last ten minutes of the film is a fascinating recounting of critical past images from the film as recollected by the third wife May, who has matured over a year witnessing incest, patriarchal preferences to indulge boys over girls, the fate of children born out of wedlock among the servants, and the humiliation of a bride not accepted by her future husband.  The casting of May’s cute female child and the facial expressions of the infant captured by the film crew are highlights of the film. 

May's cute baby girl looking at her mother holding the
the yellow flowers, very significant to the tale

Though the ending of the film is ethically unacceptable, one gets a premonition that the last ten minutes of the film will be slowly accepted as one of the most powerful and sophisticated endings ever devised to end a feature film in recent years.

When director Ash Mayfair dispenses with spoken lines, she has two other tools beyond the camera. The music and wordless vocals (used for the end credits) composed by Ton That An (a Vietnamese male composer), and sound mixing (by Roman Dymny) that are ethereal. In a crucial point within the film, prior to a tragic development, the sound department introduces the sound of crows cawing though you don’t see them on screen (Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev has employed this effectively in his 2011 film Elena). To Ms Mayfair’s credit, at no point in the film does the soundtrack seem overpowering—when you hear sound/music, it is soothing and calming to the viewer’s senses complementing the incredible camerawork.

Even interior shots are elegantly captured: a pregnant May,
 with the second wife's daughter

If there is a loser in this lovely film it would be the lack of emphases for details of realism. The film is a picture postcard view of Vietnam in the 19th Century.  Everything you see in the film is picture perfect, every detail of exteriors and interiors are dust free, polished and colourful.  The silk linen clothes hung out to dry in the sun are the whitest of white, the absence of mud and dirt on the feet of women walking in the night is unbelievable in a tropical country. So too are the absence of insects and reptiles beyond the silkworms and a single lizard on a mosquito net. Are there no snakes and other insects/ reptiles found in vegetated tropical Asian countries then and now?  Especially near bamboo groves at night?

Arrival of the third wife, May, by boat, to her husband's house

Ms Mayfair has thanked American director Spike Lee (of The BlackKkKlansman fame) among many others in the film's closing credits for the Spike Lee Fellowship she won as a student of New York University which enabled the development of the film.  Ash Mayfair has thanked the Government of Vietnam that lent a helping hand in making this high quality film in that country. The film’s highly talented cinematographer Ms Chananun Chotrungroj is also an alumnus of New York University and a recipient of the Ang Lee Fellowship. This film ought to encourage successful film directors to invest a part of their life’s earnings to develop new talents in filmmaking who otherwise would have never made a mark. Finally, Ms Mayfair choice of the actresses who played the three wives and their performances and her choice of the music composer also contributed to the incredibly well-made debut film. Even the poster of the film says a lot of the care taken to communicate the tale of the film intelligently.

The citation for the Gold Hugo for The Third Wife at the Chicago Film Festival reads:
"The Gold Hugo goes to The Third Wife. Ash Mayfair's lush, assured debut feature which follows a 14-year-old girl as she enters a wealthy household. Mayfair's unshakeable vision grants the women of this world an individuality their society rejects, treating them as creations as wondrous as the natural world that surrounds them, as the film builds to a staggering climax that devastates and thrills in equal measure."
P.S. The film has already won the Gold Hugo award at the Chicago Film Festival and the Royal Bengal Tiger Award for the best international feature film at the Kolkata International Film Festival. It won minor awards at Toronto and San Sebastian Film Festivals. The film was also part of the recent Denver Film Festival. The film is one of the best 10 films of 2018 for the author.

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