“The Third Wife” is a sensitively told, impeccably shot movie that somehow evaporates off the screen as you watch it. The debut feature of the Vietnam-born, US-educated Ash Mayfair (born Nguyen Phuong Anh, she’s a graduate of New York University Film School), it’s a lush historical tale of desire under the patriarchy that almost throttles itself on narrative discretion and general good taste. There’s slow cinema and then there’s cinema that pulls its punches.
But there are still riches here, and a story rooted in Mayfair’s own ancestry. Set in rural Vietnam in the late 19th century, “The Third Wife” focuses on May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), a 14-year-old girl who is married off to an older landowner (Long Le Vu) as the movie opens. She joins a bustling household under two older wives, the imperious Ha (Tran Nu Yen Khe), and the impetuous young Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya).
Fierce power battles rage beneath the niceties and social rituals, as do unexpected alliances. The women’s primary duty: produce a son for the landowner. First wife Ha has one son already (Nguyen Thanh Tam), now of age to be married himself and miserable about it, but since then, nothing but girls. May is quickly dispossessed of her virginity — the bloody sheet hung in the courtyard for all to see — and quickly becomes pregnant. Much of “The Third Wife” unfolds over the course of her term as she observes the secrets and hypocrisies of this hermetic world.
There are clandestine affairs and forbidden desires, some of them stirring in May herself. The cinematography by Chananun Chotrungro is deceptively placid and pretty, the score by An Ton That pretty and heavy-handed. The jockeying for position among the wives and other household members, the fate of the son’s child bride (Pham Thi Kim Ngan), the disgust expressed by the youngest member of the family, Xuan’s daughter (Mai Cat Vi) — these are tips of an immense, unspoken iceberg of disempowerment and discontent.
It’s a strong story with devastating implications, but also one told at an artistic remove that renders its meanings less subtle than diminished. There’s a fury underlying this film that goes unexpressed to the point of almost going unacknowledged, and it saps “The Third Wife” of a strength and momentum it could use. If Ash Mayfair ever taps into that fury, she may become a filmmaker to reckon with.
THE THIRD WIFE
Written and directed by Ash Mayfair. Starring Nguyen Phuong Tra My, Mai Thu Huong Maya, Tran Nu Yen Khe. At Kendall Square. 96 minutes. R. In Vietnamese, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.