A drama that follows the travails of the Pineda family in the Filipino city of Angeles. Bigamy, unwanted pregnancy, possible incest and bothersome skin irritations are all part of their ...
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A drama that follows the travails of the Pineda family in the Filipino city of Angeles. Bigamy, unwanted pregnancy, possible incest and bothersome skin irritations are all part of their daily challenges, but the real "star" of the show is an enormous, dilapidated movie theater that doubles as family business and living space. At one time a prestige establishment, the theater now runs porn double bills and serves as a meeting ground for hustlers of every conceivable persuasion. The film captures the sordid, fetid atmosphere, interweaving various family subplots with the comings and goings of customers, thieves and even a runaway goat while enveloping the viewer in a maelstrom of sound, noise and continuous motion. Written by
Brillante Ma. Mendoza's latest film, "Serbis" (2008), may not even come close to the comparative brilliance of recent Filipino films like Jeffrey Jeturian's "Kubrador", Emmanuel dela Cruz' "Sarong banggi" and, yes, even Chito Rono's "Sukob", but it's still a curious work. For what the film lacks in plot and character development, which are really severely wanting, can be justly compensated by its prescribed milieu, which stands out as a character in itself--the movie theater run by the filmic family (no less named as "Family Theater").
With its dirty and dank hallways, its vandalized walls, its crumpled and faded movie posters, its hideously flooded and murky toilet, its duplicitous screening and projection room, not to mention its regular throng of patrons who may or may not be "there" for the featured film itself and the always-prevalent traffic and crowd noise outside, "Serbis" could've been made--or could be watched--just for this run-down and out-of-luck movie theater. (If this were a good, old classic silent film, then I could've mistaken it as a film about the theater itself.)
Mendoza may have seen--or at least, may have been aware of--Jacques Nolot's "Porn Theater" and Tsai Ming-liang's "Goodbye, Dragon Inn", which his film quite approximates in terms of setting and concern. But even then, "Serbis" doesn't have the self-criticizing humor of the former and the existential elegy of the latter, qualities which, in fairness to Mendoza, he may not have the intention of lending to his film. It's because from the looks of it (I mean literally), "Serbis" may be one of the many far-down-the-way descendants and variations of the Neo-Realist School of Thought (Naturalism, Abjection, Spontaneity, etc). But even then, unlike many of the best works from that venerated film-making method ("La Terra Trema", "The Bicycle Thief", "Shoeshine", "Salaam, Bombay!", "A Woman Under the Influence", "Rosetta", "Riff-Raff", even our own "Insiang", etc), his film actually eludes the capability of being situated in a wider social and political context, not even in a remote manner. Perhaps again, that's something that Mendoza may not even be set on achieving.
To put it bluntly, "Serbis" escapes any explanation, logical or otherwise. To say that it threads on naturalism is to state the obvious. To say that it borders on the absurd is to overstate the matter. To say that it has a radical agenda being rallied is to make the point moot and academic. But then, to dismiss the film as pointless and inconsequential is to underappreciate Mendoza's efforts in coming up with a "different" film like this. I say different in that while it's too lightweight to be considered an "art" film, it's too deliberate to be regarded as "trash" as well. (It wouldn't be selected for competition in this year's Cannes film festival if it didn't have "something" going for it, I guess.)
Still, I don't get it why some of the Cannes press and even the MTRCB here would be so bothered as to express aghast at some of the film's "disgusting" and "explicit" scenes. I contend that a couple of nude and sex scenes are just plain gratuitous, but the "disgusting" scenes being specified by the press are not even worth mentioning as to merit controversy. In themselves, these scenes just don't add up to a film that's already not meant to cohere. "Serbis" is definitely no "Irreversible" and "Humanite".
What can be a source of comfort is the fact that even works of disappointment do have their choice moments of saving grace. In this scant film's case, it's the selected portrayals of Gina Pareno, Jaclyn Jose and, yes, Coco Martin. If these actors are even "acting" in the film, that I don't know. Whenever Gina and Jaclyn (the beleaguered mother and daughter proprietors of the seedy cinema) are in the frame, they really command such a thespic presence, without them exerting so much effort (if there's one), even having themselves willingly sailed (I mean literally) through the muck and mire of the film. The same goes for Coco (the aimless son of the older proprietor), specifically with regards to the factor of being "dirtied" by the film. His character rarely utters a word in the film;most of the time, he's just seen doing "something", quietly and intently. But it's in such activities, I hope, that we get to have a glean of his mental and emotional state--like in the slow and long scene where he cleans the hopelessly recoverable cinema toilet (a part of his being "dirtied" by the film). Even the decried scene where he successfully pops a painful buttock pus using a cola bottle gets to signify a kind of self-epiphany (which leads to his ultimate detachment from his family by the film's end)!
Sadly, such choice moments of portrayal are still undermined by the fact that Armando Lao's script doesn't allow them to become fully-rounded characters as for the viewers to really feel their plight. These characters are made to appear as nothing more than like the strangers and acquaintances who we meet fleetingly and randomly in real life and then care for no more afterwards. If the fairly dignified thespic chops of Gina, Jaclyn and Coco are still led to feel that way, then what more of the other characters? This but true--like the projectionist character of Kristoffer King who is there just to be given a rough blow job by one of the theater's gay patrons and the ticket-booth attendant character of Roxanne Jordan who is there just to brazenly pose in nude in front of the mirror at the film's start. But then, didn't I mention earlier that "Serbis" could be just about the theater itself?
In itself, "Serbis" is a graphic and natural document of a Filipino slice-of-life, but not enough as to become a true piece of cinematic provocation and radicalness as what the majority of films being shown in Cannes are meant to be.
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