Yesterday I watched a Vietnamese film called Vợ ba, or The Third Wife in English, directed by Ash Mayfair (despite the name, she is Vietnamese). The film is about a 14-year-old girl in 19th century Vietnam, who becomes the third wife to a wealthy landowner, and who develops some feelings for another wife. Vợ ba was released in 2018, and won a few awards at international film festivals.
I myself am not a fan.
The story is clearly inspired by Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (which naturally invites comparison), and the style is heavily influenced by Trần Anh Hùng. According to a few articles I’ve read, Vợ ba has quite a few inaccuracies: for example, the use of lá ngón (Gelsemium elegans, mistranslated as nightshade in the subtitles) as poison is a practice among some ethnic minorities but not among Kinh people, the main ethnic group in Vietnam. There are also things presented as traditions that are not traditions in Vietnam, such as the use of egg yolk on the wedding night, the hanging of the blood-stained sheet the following day, the funeral on a boat, and so on.Even if we ignore all these inaccuracies, the film as a whole is weak. Its greatest strength is the cinematography—visually, the film does look very good, very poetic. But there isn’t much to the story, nor the characters.
I can’t help thinking that Vợ ba is a film calculated to appeal to Western audiences: exotic, but filled with “Western” themes such as patriarchy, women’s rights, and lesbianism. And under all that, it’s hollow.