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
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
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.