There’s an epic quality to The Last Wife / Người Vợ Cuối Cùng that almost feels difficult to grasp. The tender love story between Linh (Kaity Nguyễn) and Nhân (Thuận Nguyễn) encompasses an intimacy that would typically be found in a quiet indie; a soft atmosphere that’s betrayed by the circumstances Linh and Nhân live in. Put together, the journey we go on visits unrequited love, generational pain, and an antiquated historic reality that touches the soul in a unique way.
Director Victor Vũ places The Last Wife during the Nguyen Dynasty where Linh, a young woman from a small rural village, catches the eye of Governor Quan Đức Trọng (Quang Thắng) and becomes his third wife — her youth being the object of his “I need a male heir” desires. Linh’s life quickly shows itself to be miserable with her detachment to reality as her only survival tactic. Linh continues to sustain the abuse by the Governor and his first wife when she runs into her childhood love, Nhân, at the market. After quickly rekindling their connection, the two embark on a love affair marred with great danger and passion.
Through Vũ's granular attention to historic detail, viewers are able to sink into early-1800s Vietnam — an important time for the country, marking the last dynasty and the era prior to French colonization. Vũ uses the feudal system to illustrate the inequity of the time with a micro and macro focus that offers much needed perspective. The grandeur of The Last Wife creates an all-encompassing world, which, in turn, magnifies the gentle love between Linh and Nhân.
Kaity and Thuận present a layered chemistry. At its core, there’s an excitable energy between them filled with innocence and purity that drives the film; but what makes their performances so enlightening is the well-worn patina they wash over their respective characters and relationship. Kaity’s doe-eyed expressions in particular go a long way in emphasizing this balance between fervent youthfulness and mature understanding.
The strength of The Last Wife is Vũ’s ability to extend this balancing act throughout the entire film. At once, we see the larger picture and context of the time while also basking in the intimate glow of their affection. Vũ impressively never lets the film become a shadow of either side of that equation. Instead, both parts of this story are fully realized and forged together in a compelling manner.