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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
In 19th century rural Vietnam, 14-year-old May becomes the third wife of wealthy landowner Hung. May is expected to bear him a child, preferably a son. Meanwhile, she has to find her place in the pecking order of the household – which includes Hung’s two older wives, Ha and Xuan, who treat her like a sister while ensuring she's kept in line.
Everything is discreet, elliptical, veiled, except in rare explicit moments meant to bring us up short: a somewhat unconventional oral sex scene, or the bloody killing of a rooster. No matter what transpires, the lyrical tone remains dominant: even Hung’s off screen beating of a servant finds its place as a regular, rhythmic element of the “natural” sound-scape.
Hung himself is treated with odd ambivalence: while he's not a smouldering romantic hero, normally off-putting or outright villainous. Rather, he seems deliberately unrealised, little more than an abstract emblem of male power as such. His relationship with May hardly exists except when they're having sex – an experience which is all pain and no pleasure as far as she's concerned. All the same, there’s a curious charge to the depiction of their first night together, where he slurps a raw egg off her chest as part of an apparent fertility ritual, while she gazes up at the similarly round, yellow moon.
All moralising aside, The Third Wife is first and foremost crafted to seduce – and the character of May is central to its methods of seduction, in her youthful beauty, her suffering innocence and her gradually awakening desires.