Friday, January 30, 2009

Filipino Cinema: Serbis

The décor is rotting, the prints are atrocious, and patrons constantly disrupt the screenings, but nobody really minds. People do not really come to the inappropriately named Family Theater for the movies, but for the “service,” or “serbis” as it translates in Tagalog. Running the theater is indeed a bizarre family affair in Brillante Ma. Mendoza’s Serbis (trailer here), an explicit but not the least bit erotic film, opening today in New York.

During previous times, the Family must have been a grand movie palace, before it went to seed in every possible way. Within its walls, the Pineda family is in turmoil. Once owners of three adult theaters, only the Family now remains. Their finances are so precarious they often take out short-term loans to cover their hot checks. Their personal lives are just as chaotic. Nanny Flor, the matriarch, is prosecuting their father for bigamy and cousin Alan is dealing with a pregnant girlfriend and a painful boil on his backside. Nayda, the dutiful daughter tries to hold everything together, while raising her son amidst such a questionable environment.

Though the films they screen appear to be heterosexual in orientation, nearly all the solicitation happening in the theater involve the local gay street hustlers. Working and living in close proximity to such explicit images and behavior, the Pinedas have become completely desensitized. For the uninitiated audience though, it all seems crazy, but Mendoza’s restless camera follows it all, darting through the once stately building like a bee in flight.

Thanks to the baroquely grungy work of production designers Benjamin Pedero and Carlo Tabije and art directors Harley Alcasid and Deans Habal, the imposing building dominates Serbis, becoming the film’s lead character. While Mendoza’s cast all seem natural and unaffected in their roles, it is his female leads who dominate this cinematic slice of vice. Jaclyn Jose nicely conveys all the pent-up hopes and resentments of Nayda, while Gina Pareno is a force of nature as Flor, a woman desperately trying to maintain some sort of moral standards, while her family lives off the vulgar and licentious.

Clearly, Serbis is not for everyone. However, instead of titillating, its graphic sexual content has the opposite effect, neither romanticizing nor eroticizing the commerce hosted in the Family Theater. In fact, many might feel the urge to shower in disinfectant after viewing the film. Yet, Mendoza’s bold tracking shots and sly humor are undeniably entertaining, and the drama of the Pineda family is completely believable and often compelling. Frequently gross, Serbis is also a bold, surprisingly engrossing film, most definitely for mature audiences. It opens today in New York at the Angelika.

(Regent Releasing, Rated R for sexual content, nudity, and language.)