January 30, 2009



Directed by Brillante Mendoza
2008, 85 minutes, Philippines (In Tagalog with English subtitles)

Since its divisive reception at the Cannes and New York film festivals, the cavernous, dilapidated movie theater where most of Brillante Mendoza's perturbingly kicky, neo-realist melodramedy takes place has drawn quick parallels to the likewise run-down theater of Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn -- which is to say, the similarities nearly end there. Both have queer cruising going on in the dark and blatantly symbolic qualities, but where Tsai's mythological theater itself is a nostalgic ode to filmmaking and filmgoing, the Angeles City X-rated movie house owned by the Pineda family in Serbis is the bigger-than-life stage for a familial microcosm of the poverty-stricken society outside. Perhaps Mendoza's film is better contextualized as the overlap between Tsai's and another NYFF 2008 film, the criminally undistributed Tony Manero, in terms of its similarly dysfunctional clan scraping by under one roof, only substituting Manero's violence for sex in an cultural area where harsh economics trump moral values. Sickly voyeuristic and still strangely humanist, Serbis allures like a scandalous soap opera, except there's not enough soap in the world to clean its grime away.

Serbis Characterizations and relationships are introduced in vignetted moments, and the building's every peeling wall is blueprinted exquisitely for the audience by strategic camera placement, either in fixed locations that turn the four-tiered labyrinth into an M.C. Escher tessellation, or in handheld tracking shots that follow characters upstairs, down and all around. Under the matriarchal management of Nanay "Mama" Flor, the appropriately named "Family" theater is run by daughter Nayda, her husband Lando and adopted daughter Jewel, who rotate between the ticket booth and a low-rent eatery, also operated out of the building. Nanay's young nephew Ronald, a cousin Nayda may or may not be having a secret affair with, runs the projector (a wonderful bit shows him, shirtless and sweaty, fumbling with the threading of the film like a bra being removed in the dark, the payoff being the moans from the screen). Her other nephew, Alan, paints the billboards, gets depressed about his girlfriend's pregnancy, and frets about the nasty boil on his ass. SerbisAnd all the while, as this family of many secrets, issues and mini-dramas (most of which, like the thief or the goat, you should chase down yourself instead of letting me ruin them here) runs their business, they pretend not to notice the gangs of trannies and gay prostitutes lingering in the back row of the auditorium, haggling for sexual favors in their home. Serbis translates to "service," an entendre that keeping on doubling: from the johns in the aisles to the family and its members, the business and its customers to, ultimately, the society and its citizens. Smutty and shabby with a blackened sense of humor that John Waters might love, Mendoza's hypnotic ant-farm portrait is dizzy with details, like a multi-paneled Chris Ware illustration dipped in a hellhole of hardship and lust.

Serbis As an addendum, Eric Hynes at Reverse Shot knew something I didn't (it wouldn't be the first time), that the theatrical cut does actually differ from the 94-minute film showed at festivals last year. By the sounds of it, this may have changed how I felt about Serbis altogether if I had caught it at NYFF:

"Perhaps in response to some Cannes critics who found the film jarringly pornographic, the fleeting, if memorable frames of hardcore have been excised. While the new cut effectively focuses Serbis on the Pinedas and on their memorable milieu, I did find the earlier version’s interjections of real sex genuinely provocative and smart, if a bit heavy-handed. Mendoza repeatedly transitions from projected pornography in the darkened theater to clumsy, explicit sex between his characters (now considerably less explicit)."

Serbis Serbis opens today in New York and Los Angeles, with releases soon after in San Francisco (Feb. 20) and Portland (Feb. 27). For more info, visit the official site.

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Posted by ahillis at January 30, 2009 3:12 PM


Are we sure that the pornographic frames were removed as a result of the negative Cannes reaction or because the distributor was feeling prudish?

Posted by: Joe Bowman at February 1, 2009 7:41 PM

I couldn't get that issue clarified before submitting the review, thus the hedge of "perhaps." Interviews out of Cannes revealed that Mendoza was surprised by the way those scenes went over, so I thought it was at least possible that he agreed to the cuts. In any event, the new version achieved an R-rating - unthinkable for the festival version - which makes it easier for Regent to book and advertise the film. Prudery? Perhaps. Strictly business? Likely.

Posted by: ehynes at February 1, 2009 10:30 PM

Aaron, have you contacted Marcus Hu at Strand Releasing to determine if the cuts were part of their distribution strategy?

Posted by: Maya at February 2, 2009 10:48 AM

I haven't, no. But as I also haven't seen the other version, I'll leave it someone more curious than myself to hunt that info down. All I know is, the 85-minute cut is a fine, commendable film.

Posted by: Aaron Hillis at February 2, 2009 11:08 AM
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