Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 14, 2019

Yomeddine; The Third Wife

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:35 pm

Under consideration are two films made by NYU film school graduates that are flawed but worth seeing. Opening at the IFC in NY and the Laemmle on May 31st, “Yomeddine” (Arabic for Judgement Day) is an Egyptian road movie made by Abu Shawky about the quest of Besha, a 40 year-old garbage dump recycler who lives in a leper colony, to find the father who abandoned him when he was 10 years old. Besha is played by Rady Gamal, a severely disfigured, non-professional leprosy survivor. Opening tomorrow at the Film Forum in NY, “The Third Wife” was made by Ash Mayfair, who, despite her name, grew up in Vietnam. It is based on the story of the arranged marriage of both her grandmother and great-grandmother and specifically the great-grandmother’s experience in a polygamous marriage in 19th century Vietnam.

“Yomeddine” can rightly be accused of sentimentality and the cheap exploitation of victimhood but I was moved by the film much more than any narrative film I have seen this  year. The fact that it gambled on featuring an actor who is the diametrical opposite of the eye candy men and women who sit on the couch next to Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon tends to make up for obvious flaws. Maybe, the film works for me since I see Egypt today as a country flawed by plutocracy and repression. With a lead character willing to confront prejudice on every front, it evokes the stubbornness that allowed millions to stand up to Mubarak.

We first meet Besha scrounging through the garbage trying to find odds and ends that he can sell for a pittance. One of the items he keeps to himself, an old-fashioned Walkman-style portable cassette player that he brings to his wife who is dying from some unspecified illness in a local hospital.

Several days later, she is dead. A Christian like him, her burial is attended by Besha’s Muslim friends who love him like a brother despite his constant gruffness, an understandable defense mechanism for someone whose affliction has a mythical quality reminiscent of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Despite the fact that medicine has eradicated the disease, his scars frighten everybody who sees him, except for his friends and fellow sufferers.

A few days later, his mother-in-law shows up and asks him to accompany her to the gravesite. Since his wife was a mental patient who had never mentioned her family or perhaps much of anything about her past, Besha wonders how her mother was notified about her death. It turns out that the Egyptian bureaucracy excelled at record-keeping, perhaps a legacy of colonialism. This leads him to successfully track down his own records and find the location of the family that abandoned him.

With that information in hand, he loads up all his belongings and puts them in the cart he uses to lug stuff from the junkyard to sell. With his beloved donkey forging ahead, he sets off on an odyssey that is about as unlikely as David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” that depicts the true story of Alvin Straight’s 1994 journey across Iowa and Wisconsin on a lawn mower. Like other road movies such as “Tom Sawyer”, “On the Road” or “Easy Rider”, Besha has a companion—someone just as much of an outcast as him. Known by his nickname Obama, he is a 10-year old Nubian orphan who is as much of a diametrical opposite of his namesake as Besha is of the Hollywood actors who go out on tours to promote some crappy film. Played by Ahmed Abdelhafiz, also a non-professional, he steals many scenes, including one when he does an inspired dance to a pop tune played on Besha’s salvaged Walkman.

On route to Besha’s home town, they run into both hostility and solidarity—just like in “Easy Rider”. The film is an affectionate look at Egypt’s underbelly and includes a cast of non-professionals just like the two co-stars, including a man with amputated legs who chases Besha away from begging on the street corner he claims as his own. The actor, like Rady Gamal, is an actual disabled person and an amazing talent. Good for Abu Shawky for having the courage of his convictions to make such a film.

If you liked “Roma”, there’s a good shot that you’ll also like “The Third Wife” since the film’s aesthetic and story are similar. Like the housekeeper in “Roma”, the 14-year old child-bride is utterly dependent on a wealthy family that takes her for granted. As May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) is the third wife of a wealthy farmer (thus the film’s title), she is barely beyond childhood and even becomes more like a daughter to the first wife rather than a rival. Throughout the film, she has very little dialogue just like the housekeeper in “Roma”.

In fact, there is very little dialogue at all in the film that seeks to extract drama from the physical interactions between characters that is mostly sexual in nature but curiously lacking in ardor. On their wedding night, the wealthy farmer sucks a raw egg off of May’s navel before he deflowers her. The scene has a ritualistic character but does not convey the sexual aggression that is left implicit. Indeed, despite the brutal patriarchy that permeates the social relationships on the farm, there is a languid and emotionally constrained quality to the drama that belies the director’s clear hatred for what women had to endure in Vietnam.

Ash Mayfair is very much a visually-oriented director just like Alfonso Cuarón. So there are many lovely shots of caterpillars, rivers, flowers, and other natural objects. Indeed, for the first 10 minutes or so of the film there was not a word of spoken dialogue. I almost thought that I had ended up watching a silent film. Perhaps it could have worked as one since the actions carried out by the characters speak for themselves. Ash Mayfair more or less conveys this approach in the film notes:

In terms of aesthetics, the visual choices of The Third Wife are largely informed by the landscape and cultural traditions of northern Vietnam, the birth place of my great- grandparents. Nature is a dominant symbolic force closely tied to spirituality and religion. People’s lives and habits were informed by the movement of the sun and the seasons. It was therefore important to portray this using as much natural light as possible. Our Director of Photography went through a lot of experiments using live fire for lighting during night time scenes because I did not want any artificial feeling to permeate the frame. Consequently, The Third Wife has a painterly approach to cinematography . The stillness of most of the composition comes from the desire to make every frame as close as possible to a watercolor painting.

Not exactly the aesthetics that register with me but if this sounds like it would with you, the film is definitely worth seeing.

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