‘The Third Wife’ is gentle and beautiful storytelling

New independent film The Third Wife is the directorial debut of Ash Mayfair. The film is based around a story from the director’s own family.

In the mid nineteenth century, May, a 14 year old girl, is wed to a wealthy landowner. She is his third wife, and must take her place alongside his first two spouses and find her role in the large and complicated family.

The film is beautifully shot, and critics have described it as looking like a delicate watercolour painting. The storytelling is measured and nuanced, and the performances are captivating. The evenly paced film is a meditation on a life that seems so long ago, but in reality is just a few generations past.

Mayfair herself has lived an interesting life, born in Vietnam she went to boarding school in Australia, studied at Oxford and now lives in New York. She spoke to Graeme Watson about making the film in Vietnam and why it was important for her to include a same-sex element in this historical tale.

Speaking to Mayfair from her base in New York the director said it was a story she had wanted to tell for a long time.

“I grew up with these people. My great-grandmother was one of several wife to my great-grandfather, and she lived well into her nineties, so I knew her growing up.

‘The story of this family, it’s been peculating around my family history for a while, so all the women you see on screen are based on people I know.” Mayfair said.

The director has always had a desire to share this story and had considered using it as the basis for a play or a novel, but when she was in graduate school it was suggested she try adapting it into a film script.

Writing the script became Mayfair’s third year thesis project at NYU, and she then spent another three years refining it before starting the arduous task of raising funds for the film. To add an extra challenge, she set her sights on filming the movie in Vietnam.

“People though I was crazy wanting to shoot a period film in Vietnam, and I was adamant that we would not be doing any green screen. We spend so long looking for locations, places without electricity that weren’t overrun with traffic.”

Eventually the crew found a perfect spot with an abandoned museum that they had to restore and reconstruct to create the family home featured in the film. Mayfair thinks the crew made it just in time, because if they’d waited a few more years she doubts many of the locations would still exist.

To create the film’s delicate and mesmerising look, Mayfair collaborated closely with her cinematographer and tried to film scenes in natural light as much as possible.

“If you see the night scenes in the film, very little of that has additional lighting, we used fire, we created light through these gas canisters.” Mayfair said.

The film’s gentle pace was inspired by sometime Mayfair spent living on location is a small village prior to filming beginning.

“I had to think about how you capture that pace of life, while still creating emotional tension and that sense of emotional turmoil. I think the success of that comes from the acting, especially the lead actress Nguyen Phuong Tra My, she’s so good.

“She was so attuned to the role that we never lost the tension, but in many respects this is like a horror film.” Mayfair said, sharing that she only realised her work bared many of the hallmarks of a horror narrative after filming wrapped. “It’s so filled with tension, dread and anticipation”.

The film has strong themes of women’s empowerment, and suffrage and while its set over a century and half ago, the world depicted does not seem far removed from our own. Mayfair said when you think about many of the concepts in the film are not too far from our own lives.

“My great-grandmother lived in the late 1900’s, but even my grandmother still had an arranged marriage. My mother is the first women in my family to say ‘No, I will not follow that path, I will choose my own partner.’ It’s something that is still perpetuating, the practice still exists in a lot of villages.” Mayfair said.

The film has a brief but powerful scene of same-sex attraction, sadly people can no longer see the film in Vietnam as it has been banned.

Mayfair says she’s disappointed in the decision, but its something that’s out of her control. She says the laws is vaguely worded which leaves its use open to interpretation. She wonders if the countries application of censorship laws is one of the reason’s the local film industry is not growing.

Mayfair said including the homosexual scene was very important for her, and while there are not a lot of records of people having same-sex relationships at this time, she’s confident they were happening.

“It’s my belief that homosexuality is an issue that is to do with humanity. As far as humanity exists, homosexuality exists. While there were very little expressions of the desires between people of the same sex, it’s natural thing.” Mayfair said.

“I wanted to include this because it’s my personal experience, I know what it is like not being able to express yourself. There are more depictions of gay men now in film and television, but still not so much for lesbians.”

Including a depiction of  same-sex attraction in a Vietnamese story was important to Mayfair because she recognises that while homosexuality is legal in Vietnam, there is still a lot of stigma around same-sex attracted people. That discrimination is not just felt in Vietnam but also in Vietnamese families around the world.

“Even here in America, a lot of gay artists in know really struggle with their parents.” Mayfair shared. “They struggle to find that expression of themselves.”

“One of the biggest reasons I became a filmmaker in the first place is inspire people to have the courage to embrace their own narrative.

Despite the film being withdrawn from cinemas in Vietnam, Mayfair is hopeful that audiences will find ways to see the tale and hear her message.

“This is story is set in the nineteenth century, and it’s my family’s history,  but so much of May’s experiences, love and desire stems from my personal experiences of growing up in this kind of society. Even though I was raised by women, I still came out entrenched in the patriarchal traditions.

“i want other girls to look at this film and say ‘Hey, I can do that. I can talk about my own story, I can celebrate the pleasure of the female body without shame.”

The Third Wife is showing now at Luna.

Graeme Watson 





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