Writer-director Ash Mayfair made a modest splash with her artful, serenely suspenseful “The Third Wife,”about a child bride’s experiences in 19th century Vietnam, and loosely based on Mayfair’s family’s 19th century history.
The 14 year-old bride, May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) has a marriage arranged with a wealthy heir, Hung (Le Vu Long), is welcomed by the two senior wives, Ha (Tran Nu Yên-Khê) and Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya). But soon she awakens to the rural gender politics at play, the familial intrigues, her own desire to give birth to a male heir and improve her status and her intense attraction to one of the other wives.
“The Third Wife” is a beautiful film, strikingly photographed, with understated dialogue, glances, stares and images carrying the subtle story and some lovely performances.
It look Mayfair five years to get it made, although it was withdrawn from release in Vietnam because, well, she cast a 12 year old who was still WAY underage when she placed her in this seriously sexual story, with nudity and simulated sex — the works.
But how did Mayfair spend the artistic capital and notoriety she won from that splashy debut? She took the same cast, same story and same locations and re-told the same story, in dialogue-free (“silent movie” style) black and white.
“Between Shadow and Soul” is, in most regards, an inferior copy of “The Third Wife.” It’s a doubling down on the controversy, in a way, even though the cast is somewhat older, a forthright assertion of an artist’s right to “pound the same nail, over and over again.” It makes for a “totally different experience,” she insists.
No. It doesn’t. The black and white cinematography calls attention to itself, but it is the gloriously contrast-rich celluloid black and white of earlier cinema? Again, no.
Are the actors accomplished enough to get across every nuance of the story, the shifting dynamics of this sylvan silkworm plantation in a lush, pre-war Vietnam? Not entirely.
Are the occasional, almost entirely random intertitles (silent movie style) enough to convey any information that limiting the soundtrack to music and sound effects (husband Hung sensually slurping a raw egg off the bare belly of his new bride, for instance) costs the story.
Talents Vietnamese filmmakers are in short supply. Mayfair, born in Vietnam but educated in the UK and the US, almost certainly had other options for a follow-up feature. One only gets to make so many movies, after all. What, was she fretting that we/they “didn’t get it?”
Limiting yourself to a single story is may present a few modest fresh challenges, but feels wasteful. And what is the indulged, privileged Mayfair wasting most of all? Time — hers and ours.
MPAA Rating: unrated, sex, nudity
Cast: Nguyen Phuong Tra My, Maya, Nu Yên-Khê Tran Hong Chuong Nguyen Nhu Quynh Nguyen, Nguyen Thanh Tam
Credits: Written and directed by Ash Mayfair. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:29