'Bitter Honey': Film Review

Bitter Honey Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Elemental Productions

Bitter Honey Still - H 2014

An informative look at how outdated traditions play out today

Robert Lemelson looks at polygamy in Bali

Three Balinese men continue their forefathers' way of marriage in Bitter Honey, Robert Lemelson's look at the way the still legal but unconventional practice of polygamy affects society there. Intelligently assembled by Lemelson, a UCLA anthropologist, it addresses a Westerner's concerns without condescending to its subjects; though a three-family focus is hardly enough to make an authoritative-feeling portrait, the picture will satisfy the curious in niche and educational bookings.

Though titles introduce it as a study of three families over seven years, onscreen the doc feels more limited than that. The passage of time is hardly felt here, and one of the families — that of an elderly, powerful man named Tuaji — appears only briefly, mostly so his generosity to his many wives (10 total, five of whom are still alive) can serve as contrast to the younger husbands.

Those two men, Sadra (two wives) and Darma (five) seem at the very first to be likeable enough people carrying on a tradition that probably seems less unfair to those who were raised with it. Our inclination to give them the benefit of the doubt fades, though, as we hear how displeased most of these women were at the thought of entering this kind of life, and how they were tricked or badgered into accepting it: Darma's second and third wife were shocked to show up to marry him at the same time, neither knowing there would be two brides at the ceremony, or that his first wife even existed.

Worse still are stories of beatings and of ways the men leech off the incomes of their women. In light of this, it's surprising how well the extended families manage to get along together. Presumably one learns to adapt to circumstances society won't let one change — even if that means the successive wives might get young enough they're in school with a man's children during courtship.

While establishing the setting in which these anomalous marriages occur (only 10 percent of official Balinese marriages are polygamous, though others are unreported), Lemelson makes it clear that this is neither the norm nor so unusual that non-polygamists are freaked out by it. A group of young men, some of whom would apparently be happy to have even one partner, respond wryly when asked why they think women would agree to such an arrangement. "When you're in love," one explains, "cat shit tastes like chocolate."

Production company: Elemental Productions

Director: Robert Lemelson

Producers: Alessandra Pasquino

Director of photography: Wing Ko

Editor: Chisako Yokoyama

Music: Malcolm Cross

No rating, 80 minutes