Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Bendor (2013)

Ralston Jover's Bendor: Life as Prison

It all seems routine. Over coffee, Blondie (Vivian Velez) animatedly recounts how she caught her husband cheating. Her story is amusing, how her husband’s philandering eventually caught up with him when he ended up flirting with their own goddaughter who grew up to work as a bargirl. Her story is aborted by sounds of wailing. There is actually more to Blondie than her domestic squabbles. In another room, a woman who she assisted to have an abortion is quickly losing blood, and is screaming for help. She brings her to the hospital and leaves her there. Luck was on her side, as she was able to escape before the hospital could figure out the abortion.

At home, everything still seems routine. Blondie prepares for work, plucking the white hairs that reveal her age. She helps her granddaughter dress up for school. Her son greets her with a request for money to pay his own utilities bills. A few minutes later, her daughter starts to pontificate about how she should just forgive her husband so that things can go back to normal. She storms out of their apartment, only to be met by her drunken husband who violently pleads for forgiveness, and eventually suffers a severe heart attack. This time, routine is on her side, as she was able to escape that morning’s drama because she has to work.

Blondie detours and visits her optometrist and beautician, delaying the inevitability of old age. She then proceeds to her stalls in Quiapo Church, where she catches her vendors slacking. She then mans her own stall, selling various colored candles to women depending on their needs. Goods are sold and money is exchanged, all outside the centuries-old cathedral that feigns ignorance of all sorts of commerce. Her daughter suddenly arrives, begging for money to pay for her husband’s hospitalization. Blondie gives her daughter her day’s entire earnings, promising to look for more money to complete the payment. The money she gave is not enough. Her daughter begs for her to visit the hospital. She cannot escape for long.

In Bendor, Ralston Jover painstakingly plots the life of a woman who has been wasted to routine. As portrayed by Velez, Blondie seems to be a woman who has seen better years. She desperately clings on remnants of her fleeting youth, while also attempting to raise a family that is tittering on dysfunction. All her efforts are funded by illicit dealings with abortionists and corrupt cops. Jover offers no moral judgments. The illegal trade Blondie plies is as ordinary and routinary as her morning shouting matches with her husband.

However, the life she leads is one where risks are part and parcel of survival. There seems to be far too many close calls. She only manages to avoid them when mysterious visions of another Blondie suddenly appear, almost mocking her of the freedom she lacks. When her salvation is nothing more than hallucinations of a life that could have been, it becomes apparent that she has imprisoned herself in a life whose dire ordinariness is but symptomatic of a more profound plight. She is just one amongst many other women circling the surroundings of Quiapo’s grand cathedral and bound by fate to either buying with both money and soul another opportunity at life and freedom or being content with the damning routine of domesticity and servitude.

Jover ends the film with blunt irony. Blondie and Quiapo’s many vendors are finally set free from prison after several hours. Upon release, she is greeted with news that her husband has been released by the hospital. Her daughters merrily exit the police station. Blondie decides to stay, behind bars. She looks on, motionless, with eyes heavy with tears. That morning’s freedom, as it turns out, is nothing more than a one-way ticket back to her life’s persisting prison.

(First published in Rappler.)

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