Koh Abun and Cik Linda, the owner and manager of the restaurant, are a nice couple. Abun feels that Linda brings good luck to the restaurant, but sexually he's drawn to Ming, the restaurant's prima donna.
Koh Abun is closer to Chinese culture than Catholicism. He puts good luck charms up to hang everywhere in the restaurant; even worse, he creates a fake ID to get married.
Cik Linda investigates the relationship between Abun and Ming but pretends to know nothing about their secret marriage. Later, with her daughters, she gets revenge.
Salma hides her true feelings when she appears in public space. She even defends her husband and says good things about polygamous life on a TV talk show ...
… and to his colleagues.
Salma begins to become cynical in how she responds to her husband. For example, after she knows that Abah takes Indri to Koh Abun’s restaurant, she offers him roasted duck again and again, and Abah has no choice but to eat the meal.
At a race, when Abah brings Indri’s daughter, Salma mocks him, "Why don’t you bring the mother?"
Siti always appears happy as she helps the family and seems to find nothing wrong with her life. Since it is an openly polygamous family, she has no shame about that.
Deep down in her heart, she's unhappy and does not tell anybody about it until later she shares her feelings with Dwi.
Unlike New Order films, Love for Share combines depictions of negative, weak, male characters with independent, strong female characters. In Abah’s case, his political and religious status leads him to neglect Salma and Nadim so he then feels ashamed to discover Salma still cares for him.
In Pak Lik’s case, he always has sex on his mind. Although poor, he can act like an emperor, strengthening the patriarchal system.
He infects all his wives with a venereal disease, starting with Sri.
Pak Lik wants to have a boy, a sign of his patriarchal attitude, so he chooses to believe that the unborn baby carried by Sri will be a boy.
Koh Abun is an irresponsible husband. He marries Ming and promise to talk to Cik Linda about it, and then Cik Linda asks him to sell the apartment and car. Finally, he moves to the U.S. after he gets a green card, and he just leaves Ming a bunch of money. Actually, he probably applied for a green card before he planned to marry Ming or was forced by Cik Linda to move the whole family to the United States.
Salma is a career woman, a doctor who runs a small clinic. She does not maintain the ideology of “Ikut Suami” (following the husband). In private space, she shows a cynical and critical attitude toward her polygamous husband.
Ming represents an active protagonist who is also a mistress. In the New Order era, such women were often depicted as seductresses and sex symbols in a negative way.
Ming's story deals with so-called secret polygamy, and interestingly it comes from a minority race and religion in Indonesia. Ming is Chinese. Koh Abun, a Catholic Chinese and her boss, loves her, and actually she falls in love with him too. But, she doesn’t want to be blinded by love.
Koh Abun has a wife who becomes the manager of the restaurant and runs everything. And he considers his wife, like his Chinese faith, as a good luck charm. So he can’t divorce her. And since he is a Catholic, he didn’t dare to tell his wife about the relation so he marries Ming quietly. Ming accepts the proposal. She is tired of being poor. She wants to share in the wealth of Koh Abun. Thus she asks him for a new apartment and a new car.
In the end, when the first wife learns about their marriage, she commands Koh Abun to sell the car and new apartment. Koh Abun then gets a green card and moves to United States. The conditions of her life have strengthened Ming to follow her vocation of becoming an actress. She feels very happy because she is on her own now.
As a young ambitious girl, Ming dreams of famous actresses like Zhang Ziyi. And she knows that working as a waitress is not the path for her, so she decides to accept the marriage proposal from Koh Abun, the owner, to be his secret (second) wife. “I don’t know why, but I’m tired of being broke. I am fulfilled and relieved now with Koh Abun. And I’ve never hurt Cik Linda, either,” says Ming to Firman, a young handsome film student who has a crush on her and wants her to become the main actress in his debut film.
The Catholic custom and religion of Koh Abun forbid him to marry for the second time; not to mention Cik Linda, his official wife who is his “good luck charm” and the head of the financial department in the restaurant. Hence, Ming just pretends that everything is running like usual and marries her boss quietly. Nobody officially is told about this marriage, except that his gambling card-game group knows. But, in her heart, Ming feels disappointed. She says in voice over,
Actually, the fact that she has to keep silent about her marriage (including telling lies about the wedding ring) makes Ming unhappy. The idea of sharing her husband is also annoying to her. And most important, it hinders her from achieving her dream of acting in film. This is the reason why she keeps in touch with Firman, the aspiring director. In the end, when the status changed, she feels relieved. “For sure, I am going to be happier if I don’t depend on anyone,” says Ming in the closing scene.
The film represents Koh Abun’s character as more Chinese than Catholic. In the restaurant, there are some Chinese good luck charms. He even thinks that Cik Linda, his official wife, is a good luck charm, which is one reason that he does not want to divorce Linda. On the other hand, his religion and official law forbid him to take a second wife. So he makes a fake ID card (which states that he is still single) and bribes the officers to do this in order to get married. “I am not a Muslim who can have four wives,” he says to Ming. But Ming answers: “Bullshit! There’s a Chinese man in my hometown who has five wives.” Koh Abun simply ignores the law and his religion. Thus, Abun and Ming practice a secret polygamy.
Similarities between the cases
The film represents three different kind of polygamous lifesyles as practiced by characters from various social and educational backgrounds, religions, purposes, and ethnicities. The three main characters in the film hide their status as “victims” of polygamy. We see the different kinds of social face maintained by the female characters. The faces they show in front of the public sphere are the veiled faces, as they hide their true feelings deep in the bottom of their hearts. But when they enter private spaces, they throw away the “veils” that cover their faces, and then the real emotional frailty and disappointed feelings appear. When Salma first finds out about her “competitor,” she gets upset. “You must shower every time you set foot in this house!” she says. He replies, “Every time I do it, I always bathe. That’s what devoted Muslims must do, right?” With these words her husband tries to refresh Salma’s memory about Mandi Junub (an obligatory shower after a Muslim has sex). Salma remains firm on her opinion: “Right, but you have to take another shower here!”
People often cannot see someone's real feelings in their face, unless perhaps one's closest friends or family. However, the spectators here can sense and feel the women's problems because they tell their inner thoughts (voice off and voice over), and the visual style emphasizes their gazes and gestures, especially when they are in the private sphere. They don’t have any revolutionary actions or direct rebellion. They pretend to accept their fates, but they don’t feel comfortable with the fact that they have to share a husband. Thus, in their own way and with their own intentions, they find the way out of the problem that polygamy poses.
By the end, all of them undergo a seemingly silent rebellion. The logic of the three characters' narratives shows that the main female characters can only be full human beings when they are finally detached from men. For Salma, she explicitly says that she only felt fully herself once her husband died. For Siti, when she and her lover — the second wife — leave the household they are finally free. And Ming comes into her own not only after Koh Abun leaves for the United States, but after she realizes she has to be an actress on her own merits and talent, not depending on a male director to make her career for her.
Dinata criticizes this patriarchal system in a satiric yet soft way, instead of a provoking a direct confrontation. To do this, a comedy of manners works well. The spectators realize the injustice of the situations within society that the female main characters have faced and, in an imaginative way, come to understand that the women can live in a free and independent way without their husbands or even any male character (in Ming’s case: Firman the young director-wanna-be; in Salma’s case: Nadim). The fact that in Salma’s story the fourth wife arrives at the funeral and both Salma and Nadim react in a comic way highlights two things. First, this phenomenon could possibly happen to any woman, including the female spectators, and second, once again comedy has succeeded in sweetening the bitter pill of instruction. The spectators can feel this kind of comedy and learn ideas through the ensemble of acting and dialogues. For example, Nadim teases his mom: “Have a feeling that dad have another one (a newcomer)?” Salma answers: “So be it, as long as they don’t bother us,” and she continues: "Let’s not make him uncomfortable as long as he’s in this house.” When Abah has a heart attack and the three wives gather, the cynical Nadim comments: “Finally dad got his wish. Here, all of his wives are gathered together in the same room.” Salma replies ironically, "Maybe they'll all come to your graduation." Or when they bury Abah and the fourth wife appears with her little baby, the second and third wives get confused and uncomfortable and try to communicate in awkward way. Then Salma and Nadim have a little chat:
In Ming’s case, there is a scene when Koh Abun wants to pick his official wife from the airport (after visiting their children in USA), Ming teases him:
Stronger wives, negative husbands
Any depiction of rebellious female characters fighting for their rights or negative male characters were rarely shown in New-Order cinema. Before the Reformation era, women were represented as silent, passive, powerless or negative. Krishna Sen argues that some genres of Indonesian films precisely are based on seeing the woman but not having the woman seeing or speaking (Sen 1994: 134). Women are represented in small and unimportant parts.
On screen, women were most commonly seen in domestic settings, dependent on and defined by the male protagonist (Sen 2008). Sita Aripurnami quotes feminist Myra Diarsi who claims that in Indonesian films at the time,
Aripurnami adds that marriage is seen in terms of the man being in control and the woman yielding to his control (Jufri (eds.) 1992: 34). The stereotypical views of women still depict women who suffer from one problem and one problem only: love (Jufri (eds.) 1992: 42). Aripurnami argues:
In another article, Aripurnami mentions that apparently a working woman is accepted for as long as she can manage to combine her job with the household and the care of the children (Oey-Gardiner & Bianpoen 2000, 53).
In some Post-Suharto Indonesian cinema, as Clark Marshall asserts, whereas the female characters become stronger, male characters are often negative and weak (Marshall 2004, 124). Negative male figures, for example, often are in plots that contain incidents of sexual harassment and domestic violence (Ada Apa dengan Cinta, What’s Up with Love, Rudi Soedjarwo, 2001) or are depicted as irresponsible husbands and fathers who abandoned their families (Pasir Berbisik). Other films concentrate on the sense of aimlessness and alienation felt by the emerging post-New Order generation of Indonesian men (Jelangkung, The Uninvited/ Ouji Board Ghosts, Rizal Mantovani and Jose Purnowo, 2001) (Marshall 2004: 124).
The phenomena I mention above did not occur in the New Order regime because President Suharto enforced a patriarchal political system called Bapakisme (Fatherism). And although depictions of “female nature” in New Order cinema were ultimately sanctified in reproduction (motherhood), "female nature" also appeared to be constantly in danger of being perverted (Sen 1994, 138). To enforce a concept of "correct" women's roles, the government spread the ideology of “azas kekeluargaan” (Family Principle) and Pembinaan Kesejahteraan Keluarga (PKK, Family Welfare Movement) as released by the Directorate General for Rural Development, Jakarta, in 1978. PKK describes the five obligations of women (Panca Dharma Wanita), and prescribes for Indonesian women the following five roles: (Oey-Gardiner & Bianpoen 2000:58)
The father has a position as a pivotal figure, the ruler and leader of the household. Mothers and wives are considered “ikut suami” (follow the husbands), and “Ratu Rumah Tangga” (Queen of the Household). Social and Education activist Henny Supolo Sitepu claims that the term Ratu Rumah Tangga — considered a noble role by New Order government — is “an empty title.” She underlines that women often have no choice but to accept the role already socially assigned (Oey-Gardiner & Bianpoen 2000: 189-190).
From a political standpoint, the role of mothers and wives underwent housewifisation and domestication. For Maria Mies, housewifisation is
Julia Suryakusuma calls it State Ibuism, a theory adopted from Maria Mies’ housewifisation, Madelon Djajadiningrat’s Ibuism, and a keyword approach to the state developed by Michael van Langenberg (Suryakusuma 2004: 162). State Ibuism means the domestication of Indonesian women (Suryakusuma 2004: 166). The image of an ideal woman is that of someone ‘accepting their natural role’ as wife and mother, fully and solely responsible for the social development of her children. And there is almost no recognition of women as individuals (Oey-Gardiner & Bianpoen 2000: 17).
Under the New Order Regime, the state also often defined itself as a “family,” as expressed in its propagation of azas kekeluargaan (the family principle) (Suryakusuma 2004: 169). Bapak (father) is the primary source of power and ibu (mother) is one of the media which expresses this power. And, of course, President Suharto is the ultimate Bapak (Suryakusuma 2004: 169). So, the father and husband role was supposed to be represented in the man's good behavior and attitude.
As a post-New-Order film, Love for Share depicts life as functioning in the opposite way. It breaks New Order patriarchal ideology. A mother no longer becomes the medium or conduit for husband/father power. The mothers and wives do not “ikut suami” (follow the husbands). Even though there are no revolutionary actions, silently the women rebel in their own way. The female characters become stronger, and male characters weaken or are depicted as having negative attitudes.At the same time the film also criticize the phenomena and discourses that recur after the downfall of Suharto, namely the institution and practice of polygamy. The film has a clear standpoint that critiques its own era.
In Salma’s case, the script's critique breaks the housewification system and proves that a career woman can be an ideal female character and can fulfill her highest idealism by building and running an affordable medical clinic for women.
In Siti’s case, the fact that there are so many little female children in that tiny house comically underlines patriarchal ideology. Pak Lik wants a boy and he will always try to have one. One scene depicts how Pak Lik hopes that the baby inside his first wife, Sri, will be a boy. A boy, a future man, is the center of patriarchal system; he will be a husband or a father who always controls his daughter and wife. Indeed, Pak Lik is an useful figure to represent Bapakisme. In a scene, after making love with his fourth wife, Pak Lik sits in the sofa and commands: “Coffee would be good…”. One of the wives goes to kitchen in a hurry to make him a cup of coffee. And Siti’s voice over ironically comments: “Pak Lik acts like an emperor with his concubines. He doesn’t realize that there’s a disease he transmitting to all of us…”
In Ming’s case, it is not Koh Abun who has the control, but he is a tool for Ming to achieve her dreams (get out from poverty, get a new apartment and car, quit waitressing, and pursue an acting career). “Koh Abun is not the only man in my life, but he understands all of my needs,” Ming's voice over says. And in this segment, the very idea that a mistress can be a protagonist in this way effects a huge change in the Indonesian cinema scene.
Surely the fact of polygamous life in Indonesia is a not very well hidden public secret. Still most people do not really know about life inside polygamous families, or the reasons why some women want to be second, third, or fourth wives. Both Nia Dinata and the film try to answers these questions: “Why do those female characters want to practice polygamy?” “How do polygamous families live their daily lives?” The film explores an inner reality beneath the surface, that of women's feelings and lives as they experience the shaping effect of polygamy. On the other hand, in a more sociological way, the film replicates a kind of national reality based on or inspired by three female characters that Dinata actually found in her two years of doing research on the issue. As Post-Suharto cinema, the film has succeeded in breaking the State Ibuism and Bapakism propaganda formerly embodied in the New Order’s patriarchal ideology.
One aspect of the current situation that the film clearly presents is that there are difficulties for the other characters (who in effect represent most people in Indonesia) to know these "insider" stories of polygamy since all of the main female characters always hide their own feelings toward the issue when they appear in public space. They have their own reasons. But the film uses these three narratives to show how, with their own way and style, all the women protagonists protest their situation. They rebel against polygamy, silently, in secret. Salma keeps the “secret” until Abah dies. Siti runs away with Dwi. Ming, since Abun left, feels free to chase her dream as an actress. In the end, all of the female main characters are independent of all of the male characters.
Although polygamy is a controversial issue, as I elaborated in the first paragraphs, the film has been broadly welcomed. In fact, Love for Share became the official selection from Indonesia for the 2006 Academy Awards. The comedy of manners approach makes the film a safe place, and Dinata shows the reasons of polygamy's practitioners.