Review: ‘Bitter Honey’ doesn’t sugarcoat polygamy

A scene from the movie, "Bitter Honey."
(Elemental Productions)

UCLA anthropologist Robert Lemelson’s portrait of polygamous families is more “60 Minutes” than “Sister Wives.” An exposé and call for social reform in Bali, the film reveals no all-for-one camaraderie, and few creature comforts, for women in so-called honey marriages, which account for 10% of the Indonesian province’s officially recorded households.

When men can marry as many women as they choose and women have few legal options, what’s honey for the gander is clearly not honey for the goose.

Of the three families profiled in “Bitter Honey,” the eldest figures only briefly in the mix. According to the younger subjects’ surprisingly candid testimony, women rarely enter these arrangements whole-heartedly or even with full knowledge. One woman recalls the painful shock of learning on her wedding day that her husband would be marrying her and another woman in the same ceremony. Another weeps while recalling that her husband wed again when their child was 11 days old.

Lemelson explores the pull of tradition and its use as justification, not only for polygamy but for violence and infidelity. The word “heredity” comes up repeatedly in the men’s interviews as an explanation for their behavior. Many believe that a man’s power grows with each wife. As to female empowerment, it remains a challenge in a culture where custom and law are decidedly patriarchal.


For Westerners, Lemelson offers an eye-opening look behind Bali’s profile as a tourist Shangri-la. The documentary’s ultimate value, though, may be in local education, not unlike the polygamy-critique shadow play that punctuates the film.


‘Bitter Honey’

MPAA rating: None.


Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes.

Playing: Landmark Regent, Westwood.