Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Serbis (2008)

Serbis (Brillante Mendoza, 2008)
English Title: Service

Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis (Service) is hardly a perfect film. In fact, it is so riddled with flaws that it would utterly be improbable and impossible for me to enumerate each and every one of them. I have a faint understanding as to why it has caused such a divisive uproar when it was screened in Cannes, where critics and viewers either absorbed it or delegated it as pornographic trash. Perpetually swimming in a perpetual cacophony of traffic and chaos, Serbis details a day in the life of the Pineda family, owners of an Angeles City movie theater that screens soft-core pornographic films to hustlers servicing gay men in the comfort of the theater’s damp and dark interiors. Even absent portions of the two explicit sex scenes (one involving a man and his girlfriend making love despite the discomfort of a boil in the man’s buttock, and another involving the projectionist receiving a blowjob from one of the theater’s patrons), which the local censors forced the film’s producers to cut for local exhibition (a blatant undermining of Constitutional safeguards in protecting due process, as completely explained in my paper which calls for the abolition of the obsolete law that created the present censors board), the film elicits a legitimate response of either disgust or fascination

I was undoubtedly fascinated. Serbis seems to be Brillante Mendoza’s most ambitious and most intriguing work. Serbis is a film that can be both seen as a traditional network narrative that juggles the stories of the residents of the decrepit movie theater, and a film going experience itself, since it seems that it was purposely meant to titillate, arouse and shock to replicate the characteristic sleaze of these ruined movie houses that have been transformed into cruising spots for the horny and adventurous.

Serbis takes its cue from Jeffrey Jeturian’s brilliant Tuhog (Larger Than Life, 2001), also scribed by Serbis-screenwriter Armando Lao. Tuhog details the tragic tale of a barrio lass (Ina Raymundo in her most believable performance to date) who was raped by her father, a story that is sold to unscrupulous movie producers who transformed it into an exploitative parade of boobs and butts in several acrobatic sex sessions. As structured (with the first half of the film detailing what really happened to the lass and the second half screening the movie based on the lass’ experience), Tuhog makes apparent the psychology behind the exploitation, eliciting a response of pity and disgust to the blatant commercialization and bastardization of other people’s tragedies.

Serbis, from the moment its opening credits takes the appearance of an overused reel before opening with the sight of a girl (Roxanne Jordan) completely naked in front of a mirror while whispering I love you’s in a seductive tone to its end where the “reel” burns at the moment wherein we are overhearing what turns out to be a negotiation between an old homosexual and a young bystander for sex services, is aiming at mixing reality and fiction and blurring the fine line between film viewing and voyeurism, the same way Tuhog examined the hurtful discrepancies of crossing that same line that divides life from film. What differentiates Serbis is that Mendoza’s film works best as an experience, which brings to mind the numerous walk-outs the film has elicited, which to my mind is a result of a lack of acceptance of this film’s goal of replicating the atmosphere in these dilapidated porn theaters that dot urban centers in the Philippines.

The film's plot crisscrosses to and from the dilemmas of the individual members of the Pinedas, a family characterized by strong women and inutile and irresponsible men. Nayda (Jaclyn Jose) tends to both the theater operations and the problems of her family, which includes Alan (Coco Martin), who got his girlfriend (Mercedes Cabral) pregnant but is hesitant in having everything end up in marriage; Ronald (Kristoffer King), the film projectionist who is busy being serviced by transvestites while exchanging sticky longing looks with Nayda; Lando (Julio Diaz), Nayda's gullible husband who is tasked in managing the canteen while doing other household chores. The storyline is as complicated as the labyrinthine corridors of the theater, with the characters not necessarily explicating their existences through traditional narrative structures. Instead, these characters are products of their settings, rotting at the same time as their beloved theater, and rapidly escaping from the clutches of Catholic morality just like the theater's patrons have abandoned the normal premises of privacy and decorum.

The final representative of the past's fading splendor is Flor (Gina Pareño), the family's matriarch who miserably laments the failure of both the theater and her family. She alone adamantly stands with grace amidst the deterioration that drapes the setting, a deterioration that has almost completely eaten up her theater and her family. As Flor, veteran actress Pareño gives a brave and glorious performance, allowing Mendoza and cinematographer Odyssey Flores to expose her at her lowest and most vulnerable. In one scene, we see Flor taking a bath, Mendoza's ever-present camera eagerly lingering behind her naked body, evidently aged. It's a scene that might be argued as unnecessary but in reality, merely showcases the character's trajectory from utter disgrace to undaunted resilience. She dons a splendid black dress, as all memory of her recent failures temporarily erased, and then replaces Nayda in the ticket booth, glowing with the dignity of a near invisible past.

In Serbis, Mendoza and Lao lace their neo-realist intentions with lovely moments of absurdity: of a police chase that extends to the theater's interiors and abruptly ends with the snatcher hanging for his dear life, of a lost goat suddenly interrupting a film screening, and of an unsightly boil that has turned sex into an uncomfortable chore. It is this deadpan humor that is probably the only similarity Serbis has with Tsai Ming-liang's beautiful and elegiac Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), a film that is also set in a rundown theater that has become the setting for several dubious activities. The two filmmakers have differing mindsets. Tsai both mourns and celebrates cinema with the final screening of Dragon Inn (King Hu, 1966) on a movie theater's final night of commercial existence. Mendoza, on the other hand, fathoms the extent and the repercussions of deterioration of culture, and the way the same interacts with the lives that are affected (the Pineda family) and the audiences (the inattentive patrons depicted in the film and us, as enchanted or disgusted viewers of this film) that feed on such mutated culture.

Serbis is not Mendoza's best film, a distinction that still belongs to one of Mendoza's most neglected films, Manoro (The Teacher, 2006), a heartfelt tale about a young Aeta girl who taught her entire tribe to write in time for the presidential elections but fails to convince her own grandfather to vote. However, it is undoubtedly his most complicated film to date, one that works in so many levels that each viewing would surely elicit a different reaction, response and understanding.

This is my contribution to the Movies About Movies Blog-a-Thon at goatdogblog.


digitalburyong said...

Great piece, Oggs. The different layers of domestic deterioration that Serbis has able to emphasise make it more difficult for me to say that I didn't like it, which in fact, is a lie. The alta sociedad in Cannes dismiss the fact that the "yuckiness" is indeed culture-specific, and there's not a single moment in the film that I felt that way. Although some parts, I must say, are still done very sloppily.

(Weird thing, when we saw it in Ermita, there are a lot of bystanders at the back. The seats in front are almost empty. We're wondering if that's a gimmick or something else.)

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Chard,

Can't wait to read your take on it. I was really prepared to dislike the film but as it turns out, it's quite good. It's not as sloppy as Foster Child, and I would've preferred less or no make-up on the actors (notice the thick make-up on Coco Martin's buttock, and on the faces of Jacklyn Jose and Gina Pareno), but to point that out would be nitpicking. There's raelly much more to the film than that. The ambient noise, I thought was terrific and the never-ending shots that trace the characters' movements were nicely done.

digitalburyong said...

With the placement of your words, it seems that you're comparing Coco's ass to Jaclyn and Gina's faces. Haha. But that's true, the make-up is rather disturbing. Maybe it's part of what Mendoza is trying to purport as neorealism in his films, which to be honest, has not done him well. There is no question about Lao's versatility as a writer; it's with the director I guess. Jeturian's best works are penned by Lao; this is not to point out who's the better director, but I believe it already shows on the output.

Oggs Cruz said...

Haha, it did seem that way, but I guess they used the same kind and amount of make-up for the butt and the faces. Jeturian is faithful to Lao or to any of his writers, which is why his films flow very well. Mendoza, on the other hand, forces his style and philosophy too adamantly, which makes his storytelling falter. Mendoza is a more brazen filmmaker, which is both good and at times dangerous.

Anonymous said...

i haven't seen the film, but was really disappointed that they allowed the film to be cut, and then bing lao saying that it doesn't really matter because "cut scenes do not in any way alter the signified."

i'm hoping to score a dvd somewhere so i can watch the uncut version.

Anonymous said...

Great review Mr. Cruz. Anyways, SERBIS did well for me.

Brillante's aim for Neo-Realism was uncanny, especially the toilet scene which actually is far more disgusting than the fellatio.
He could have sensationalized certain scenes. Nanay Flor’s introspective moment inside the ticket booth could have made a great parting impression, but he chose to cut the sentiment short. Life goes on, screw sentiments as if he wanted to say. And overdoing things could end up too dramatic although a sentimental audience would go mad for it.

There are many flaws, yes. But it doesn’t really matter. Like the rotting theatre, I grew fond on the narrative and direction of SERBIS as the film unfolded. Great job by Brillante.

jayclops said...

Sana maka-abot dito sa Davao. Really, they cut those two scenes? Isn't it enough that it's R18 already? Jeez. To debate MTRCB's deteriorating set of tastes and values will be exhaustive. Phew.

Anonymous said...

Wow, ' chard '. SINO ang nagpapaka-' alta-sociedad ' dito.
At hinahayaan ninyong putahin ang mga mahihirap at Pinoy nang ganun-ganun lang.
Siguro, sa tingin ninyo, porket dinurog ninyo si FPJ at sinupil ang kapasidad lumaban ng mga Pinoy sa bansa, makakalusot na kayo sa pagpipitagan ninyo, eh no !
Mga bwiset ! Buti kakarumpot lang ang mga pumatol nang kabulastugang iyan sa Pinas, at mas marami pang matinong bagay nalalamang gawin ang mga kababayan ninyo KESA SA INYO !!!
Ba't hindi ninyo na lang singhutin yang mga pigsa ninyo sa pwet, at malula kayo sa inyong mga pa-'art' 'art. Hehe.
Oh, so HINDI tayo ang ' most corrupt nation in Asia ', eh, no ? At si Gloria Makapal Tarantado ay BINOTO NANG LIPUNAN ?!? '
Any other bullshit you got there, mother fuck faces ?!?

athan said...

At last I was able to see Serbis at the Italian Film Festival and left the moviehouse disappointed. Yeah, yeah, films are supposed to educate and to elighten and to show us the truth. But goodness, show some story and flow and some drama please. Art is supposed to feed you. Serbis -- I left the cinema overfed with the dirt but felt so hungry. Did not connect to my soul. Sorry