It’s hard not to compare Sukkar Mor (Bitter Sugar) with director Hany Khalifa’s first and only other feature film, Sahar al-Layaly (Sleepless Nights, 2003).
Both follow upper-middle-class Egyptian couples trying to cope with relationship issues, and both get their names from songs by Lebanese singers – Sahar al-Layaly by Fairouz and Moftara’ al-Toro’ (Crossroads) by Majida al-Roumi.
Sleepless Nights, which stood out admirably from its contemporaries, brought various taboos to the screen: Sex before marriage, compulsive cheating, sexual problems and the impact of previous relationships on a marriage.
These all crop up again in this summer’s Bitter Sugar, which follows the lives of five couples in Cairo as they wander in and out of relationships with each other and others.
The script is Mohamed Abdelaty’s second attempt at writing a feature film, although unlike Khalifa, his first effort — Hossam al-Gohary’s Al-Mahragan (The Festival, 2014) — barely made a ripple after its release.
Bitter Sugar’s screenplay follows a non-linear narrative that jumps back and forth between various points between 2009 to 2014, with a special focus on how the protagonists spend each New Year’s Eve.
Dates flash across the screen when the camera hops from one time to another. The 2011 revolution and subsequent political developments enter the plot through the characters’ eyes as they watch television, listen to the radio and read news. Beyond giving an indication of time, though, these political realities have no direct impact on the story other than leaving the viewer slightly confused.
Trying to figure out who is who, when things are happening and what the potential significance is of arbitrary news clips takes a lot of effort, so there’s little chance to empathize with the characters or get lost in the story.
The characters themselves seem to go through fairly drastic changes. For instance, Hossam (Haitham Ahmed Zaki) goes from party animal to being unexpectedly conservative and wanting a wife who wears niqab, while Alia (Ayten Amer) initially refuses to get involved with Selim (Ahmed al-Fishawy) because of his wild party lifestyle, only to become the life and soul of the party herself after they get married – while he calms down.
None of the protagonists are defined by unique personal details. We’re rarely given meaningful information about their families or backgrounds (except that they are all from a certain class), nor exposed to their lives outside the relationships we see onscreen. As a result they’re bland and inaccessible, and the film ends up feeling like all six seasons of “Gossip Girl” condensed into two hours: Rich people party and swap partners as time passes, with no significant dramatic force behind their actions.
One moment in Bitter Sugar rings tender and true. Nabil (Omar al-Saeed) and Mariam (Nahed al-Sebaei) have been together for ages but are unable to marry due to financial difficulties. In this particular scene, they gaze into each other’s eyes, sharing an intimate moment ripe with sexual tension, and then the camera zooms out and we realize they’re not somewhere private but in a restaurant, and their conversation is interrupted by a waiter bringing their orders.
Theirs is a relationship stifled by society’s expectations about marriage and religious restrictions on premarital sex, and so they spend their days in public places with pent-up desires and heavy hearts. The restaurant scene captures that beautifully and subtly — qualities almost absent from the rest of the film.
Sleepless Nights came out at a time when Egypt’s movie industry had almost nothing to offer but cheap comedy flicks, and its relatively candid portrayal of sex was considered daring, breaching ground not yet trodden by other young Egyptian filmmakers.
Thirteen years later, Khalifa relies on almost the same formula to do the trick, but it doesn’t work because all the other variables in the equation have changed. There’s nothing bold or daring about Bitter Sugar, beyond its use of the word “fashkh” (commonly used to mean “fuck”).
Despite this, the film does carry a clear message: “Stay away from marriage, it will destroy you.” Had the filmmakers put as much effort in tightening their story as they put into making this message loud and clear, the film might have been stronger. Ultimately, Bitter Sugar reeks of wasted potential.