Thursday, 8 February 2007

Love for Share (Berbagi Suami) (2006)

Not a campaign poster for polygamy

Love For Share is about the issue of polygamy as seen through the eyes of women who are married to men who have other wives. Already, I can hear you groan, probably because you found out this movie is made of three interconnected stories about 3 women, each from a different social class, facing a serious and widespread social problem in Indonesia. Yes, Love For Share sounds like An Artsy, Independent Film With An Important Social Message by a fresh director that's destined to play at film festivals around the world. You'd expect normal audiences to be turned off by the self-importance that such a movie exudes. Looking at the director's previous films, you'd probably come to this suspicion as well - Arisan had a group of well-to-do 20somethings gossiping willynilly in their gatherings as they match make each other with all sorts of wrong partners, which Ca-bau-kan tackled adoption and concubinage in society.

Enough already, you must protest. But it might be better to give Nia Di Nata the benefit of the doubt in her third film, because she does the right thing finally, and saves the audience from terminal boredom. Instead of a dreary social problem movie about polygamy, Di Nata offers a comedy on polygamy. Instead of preaching down to us about the ills of polygamy (oppresses women, spreads STDs, robs people of their dignity and independance) and hammering her message (don't practise polygamy!), the director invests a healthy sense of humour to her stories, so that we can laugh with her characters, who look nothing like the stock long-suffering concubines or neglected first wives that we'd expect.

Sure there's a modern Muslim woman, a highly-educated doctor who simmers with years of disappointment after her husband takes on a second wife (telling her off-hand when No. 2 bears him a daughter) but the delicious comedy begins when the husband suffers a stroke and is found to have a third wive, unknown to both warring households. There's a young girl who becomes the newest mistress in a household filled with interesting marital rituals (shades of Gong Li in Raise the Red Lantern?), but the comedy begins when instead of fighting amongst themselves, the wives build up a close friendship to collaborate and collude with each other to share their childrearing burdens - and overcome the wretched poverty of their home. It's this sense of situational irony that makes Love For Share a charming and fun film to watch, and what makes its final story a partial letdown, as it feels out of place with the other two parts. It has no situational irony and unexpected twist, and an attentive audience would probably notice that it must have been included only because it completes the third possible permutation in a relationship between a man and his two wives. Viewers will also wonder about the Aceh tsunami disaster of 26 December 2005 - this time, the groans are entirely justified because the the tsunamis are throwaway references that don't quite play a necessary part in the movie.

When it works, though, Love For Share works brilliantly. Through her latest movie, Nia Di Nata proves that her instinct for subtle urban comedy is rapidly maturing, and her at times overwritten scripts are finally coming under control. She may one day be Indonesia's Feng Xiaogang, and I'd certainly pay serious attention to her next movie - it could be the big one.

First published at incinemas on 8 February 2007

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