Kuma [The Second Wife] is a film that may appear strange to Western audiences. It certainly seemed like a parallel universe to me. After watching it and then reading some reviews, I found out I’d totally misread a key narrative reveal, twenty minutes into the film. It’s a reveal that colours much of the rest of the film, and so I’ll sketch it out here, in case you miss it (it’s pretty subtle): Ayse, a sweet, quiet village girl from Turkey, is whisked away to Vienna after an arranged marriage with the handsome Hasan. But this marriage is merely a legal one: the real purpose of her instatement in Vienna is to be groomed as a future wife to Hasan’s kindly father, Mustafa, whose current wife Fatma is dying of cancer.
That a woman should actively want her husband to take up a surrogate wife in a ménage-à-trois – accompanied by an extended family – was completely incomprehensible to me, and so it didn’t even enter my head as a possibility. Loathe as I am to admit it, I went through the whole film thinking that Ayse and Hasan were married to all intents and purposes. Nevertheless, even if the reveal were to go whooshing over your head, this film is rich in many ways. The script is tight and nuanced in places, although a little melodramatic in others. The pacing and direction are solid: the film moves along nicely, but is phlegmatic enough to allow us to reflect on events, and explore subtleties within the situations. The cinematography is gentle and sensitive, with many scenes infused with a melancholic tinge of blue.
Perhaps the film’s strongest suit – apart from its sympathetic and comprehensible characters, and the general realism of the piece – is its acting. Nihal Koldaş is completely convincing as the stern but kindly matriarch, who adopts Ayse as a member of the family and gives her everything she has to give, including her own husband. Vedat Erincin is reserved and timid as Mustafa, uncomfortably guilty at the whole situation. Murathan Muslu and Dilara Karabayir are excellent and believable as the faux-husband with a secret and the bristling, jealous, territorial sister respectively. However, much of the film is carried by the superb, sensitive central performance by Begüm Akkaya: a young woman lost in a different culture and several difficult situations, and – probably as a result of all the unnatural, uncomfortable circumstances – drawn to making a dramatic, damaging mistake.
We are never sure exactly what culture we are seeing here. Is it Turkish village culture? Turkish urban culture? A Turkish microcosm in a Viennese setting? Whatever it is, it is a compelling one, and one that allows director Umut Dağ to explore themes of social, cultural and familial pressures, as well as choices and individual agency. We may find the culture strange, but it’s certainly far from unsympathetic: the family under the microscope is full of love and protectiveness, as well as reacting well to the adoption of Ayse. It’s also a smart family, with integrity, honesty and understanding – adjectives that also describe this film.
If you don’t mind the sight of various characters bursting into tears at numerous points, I recommend this film to you.