By A.O. Scott
At 14, May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) travels up river to marry a man she has never met and start a new life on his family’s silk plantation. The household, which includes servants, her husband’s two other wives and their children, is a place where intimacy and cruelty can be hard to tell apart. It’s the center of a world rendered with pathos and somewhat prurient fascination in “The Third Wife,” Ash Mayfair’s finespun debut feature.
The setting is 19th-century Vietnam, which Mayfair, who was born in Ho Chi Minh City and studied film at New York University, renders with delicate precision. May’s new home, in a steep valley with flowering trees and airy wooden buildings, is both paradise and prison. Governed by rigid, patriarchal customs and rituals, her daily routines also make room for solitude and even pleasure. The two senior wives, Lao (Nguyen Nhu Quynh Le) and Xuan (Mai Thu Huong), welcome her with big-sisterly advice about sex, childbirth and domestic politics.
The story, which follows May from the day of her arrival through a pregnancy, illuminates her social and physical surroundings with quiet clarity. The seasons of her forced transition from child to mother are measured against the life cycle of the silk worms, a source of metaphorical as well as economic sustenance. Like them, the wives are part of a cottage industry that mixes beauty and utility, captives of their own productivity.
When May becomes pregnant, she prays for a boy, observing that Xuan, who has given birth to two daughters, holds a lower status than Lao, the mother of sons. She also observes the affair between Xuan and their husband’s oldest son, a relationship that brings conflict and tragedy to the clan and some heavy-breathing al fresco eroticism to the film.
The sensuality that Mayfair and Chananun Chotrungroj, the director of photography, create around May is seductive, and also unnerving. “The Third Wife” presents a tableau of injustice — a male-dominated hierarchy that directly oppresses women and brings collateral misery to some men as well — from a perspective that feels both compassionate and detached. It’s too cool for melodrama and too pretty for politics, and the drama of May’s experience occupies a middle ground between pity and indignation.
The cruelty she encounters is a fact of life, as is the solidarity she occasionally experiences with Lao and especially with the unfailingly kind Xuan. The possibility of freedom occasionally stirs like a faint breeze, and the film’s final scenes hint at desperate and defiant acts of resistance. But the movie is also trapped in the same claustrophobia it depicts, unsure of how much it can or wants to get away with.