American anthropologist Robert Lemelson’s “Bitter Honey” offers a moderately interesting study of two polygamous families in Bali, suggesting this family structure is a cultural dinosaur that enables the oppression of women. But the docu’s larger points, calling attention to domestic violence in Indonesia as a whole, aren’t particularly well supported by its very narrow character focus and somewhat clunky episodic structure, resulting in a feature that sheds less light than it means to. It opened in Los Angeles Oct. 3, with other U.S. cities following; theatrical impact is likely to be minor, with bright possibilities in classroom and niche broadcast exposure.
Polygamous wedlock is legal in Indonesia (though many such arrangements exist off the official record); in Bali, they constitute about 10% of all registered marriages, though as we see here, there is fairly widespread public sentiment against them. Framed by excerpts from a traditional shadow-puppet performance unabashedly advocating that perspective — its irresponsible, faithless protagonist ultimately gets sent to hell for poor treatment of his wives and children — the pic focuses on two village families that at first glance seem relatively harmonious.
That impression deceives, however, as Lemelson soon reveals the less flattering truth beneath. I Wayan Sadra is a poor laborer whose two wives live with their children in separate abodes. Cockfighter I Made Darma has five spouses under one roof (excepting his first wife, who’s divorced him and moved), each running her own mini-household with kids and rotating conjugal visits in one part of the home. The men seem to think all this is fine; the women are considerably less enthused. Far from being “kept,” all work full-time to support their man and offspring. Nearly all have tales of being seduced by deceptive means, in some cases not realizing until they were pregnant and/or married that hubby already had at least one pre-existing wife and mother to his children.
Though both men smile benevolently for the camera, their wives tell a different story of beatings and psychological abuse. They’re afraid to leave not only because of threatened violence, but because legal and social norms almost invariably side with the man; worse still, many share a religious belief that divorcees’ souls are lost after severing ties to a husband’s bloodline. The wives get along with one another, if only because they have to. They’re united on at least one front: None want their children to choose the same lifestyle that was forced on them. So far, the kids seem to concur.
Intriguing enough in what it shows, “Bitter Honey” nonetheless frustrates for what it doesn’t. It was shot over a seven-year period, yet the thematically chaptered structure (“Power,” “Violence,” etc.) doesn’t at all take advantage of the chance to show us how these relationships might evolve over time. A third family is introduced, that of an elderly royal descendent who was once a powerful political figure (he admits to killing communists and other perceived enemies in the brutal national “purge” half a century ago), and who has five wives still living among a total roll call of 10. But they’re too briefly, discreetly encountered to offer any contrasting insight toward the working-class principal subjects.
Pic’s main point seems to be a general cry for women’s rights, and awareness of domestic violence in Indonesia. But whether the latter’s occurrence is any higher in polygamous than in ordinary marriages goes unremarked. And subsidiary topics, like the rise in rural prostitution noted in the section called “Lust & Infidelity,” are treated so fleetingly that they simply blur further an already hazy overall focus. Less-than-satisfying editorial decisions aside, assembly is adequate.