by Eric Hynes

Dir. Brillante Mendoza, Philippines, Regent Releasing

In Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis, as in real estate, location is everything. Set inside a majestic Art Deco movie house in exquisitely grimy disrepair, with airy, labyrinthine stairwells and damp, dark screening rooms, the film finds surprises around every corner yet preserves the building’s mystery even after 85 exhaustive minutes. Remaining inside but for a few fleeting seconds, Mendoza’s camera closely tracks members of the proprietary Pineda family during a single, typically tumultuous day, as the endlessly fascinating surrounding environment overwhelms and upstages them.

A sidelong approach to prostitution and pornography in Manila, Philippines, Serbis—named after the slang for “service boys” or johns—keeps the Pineda family central while drifting into shadowy propositions and oral exchanges. Young boys cluster along the margins of the vast theater—its giant marquee spells “Family,” ironically invoking simpler times—catcalling a saucy transvestite, dashing into a sugar daddy’s waiting car, pocketing money from older men, and brandishing their erect commodities along the porn-flickered aisles. They are part of the environment, a reality that the Pineda family neither discourages nor actively acknowledges. To do so would make the pronounced physical and moral decay too hard to live down for everyone involved. Street sounds constantly muffle dialogue and dominate the soundtrack, indirectly equating this mutant, survivalist community with the surrounding city. With so little money to go around, there’s no use judging how anyone makes ends meet. Whatever it takes to survive.

Nayda (Jaclyn Nayda), a sad and beautiful thirtysomething earth mother, is the family’s rock and the film’s finest creation. Managing the decrepit theater with her daffy estranged husband working in the kitchen, her flirtatious cousin turning tricks for kicks in the projection booth, her blooming younger sister emulating trannies, her angry yet defiantly elegant mother financing the dying business amidst an ugly divorce, and her cute bespectacled young son tricycling past prostitutes in the theater lobby, Nayda may be stereotypically saintly but Jose’s face sells a spectrum of believable emotion. She seems to absorb all that she encounters, every indignity and sick joke, while retaining a life-preserving hope for possible relief. As a single-day slice of life, shot with requisite but effective handheld dexterity, Serbis is absorbing throughout. But as familial melodrama it’s unnecessarily elliptical and cluttered, with final-reel reveals that provide neither insight nor meaning but belabored facts about who’s related to whom and how. Though enshrouded in lineal mystery, all of the portrayals in Serbis are strong. The environment may be gritty, but Mendoza populates it with a diversely attractive cast.

This theatrical cut of Serbis differs from the one that screened in Cannes and the New York Film Festival in 2008. 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). That equation of pornography with real sexual relations is the film’s most pointed and self-incriminating conflation. Is the movie house an honest, family-run business or a brothel? Are they moral Catholics or sinners marooned in a circle of hell? Are these boys straight hustlers or homosexuals, or does it, like the distinction between sex and porn, art and exploitation, family and enemy, no longer matter in a world this desperate and degraded?

Perhaps concerned that these overlaps and his own meandering approach to cinema would completely baffle viewers, Mendoza unfortunately plants bold-faced moments into the otherwise organic, vérité-like proceedings: a young girl stands naked before a mirror repeating, in strained English, “I love you”; a self-righteous harangue about good and bad ends with a fumbled Mother Mary statue; in a final scene, a man asks a young boy awkwardly reportorial questions about the sex trade. At its best, Serbis lets the viewer intuit the complexities of this environment on the fly, such as in two delirious chase sequences inside the theater. First a purse snatcher and then a mewling goat invade the space, causing the whole motley community to join in gleeful pursuit, seemingly for the sake of childish fun and common purpose, and for the pleasure of careening through such a glorious maze. Each time the chase ends (the thief is nabbed yet the goat escapes) everyone returns, still buzzing from the excitement, to what they’d been doing: grim activities that somehow seem grimmer and stranger than they did just a minute before.