Thursday, October 23, 2008

Discovery: SERBIS

Serbis plays again on Saturday at River East at 7:30pm.

While I’ve seen some very good movies at the festival, Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis is the first one that threw me for a curve. It’s an in-your-face drama about an extended family that once operated three movie palaces in the Filipino city of Angeles but now runs only one—and that became a second-run porn theater some time ago. The subject matter recalls Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) and Jacques Nolot’s Porn Theater (2002), but this is not a lament over the death of cinema or the failure of lonely people to connect. The environment is boisterous in spite of the depravity (As in the Tsai and Nolot films, the theater hosts a vibrant a gay cruising culture), full of life, full of character. Mendoza's mobile, mainly hand-held camera seems unable to keep up. The film takes place over an especially busy day as the family’s controlling matriarch awaits a decision in the bigamy suit she’s filed against her husband. Also, her teenage nephew is afraid to announce he’s gotten his girlfriend present; the local pre-op transsexual hookers are working harder than usual to get customers; and someone needs to take the kids to school. For all the melodramatic elements, Mendoza stages the proceedings as if he were Ridley Scott making an action film: We’re constantly in the middle of things. Remarkably, the camera is nonjudgmental throughout all of this, even during the movie’s most prurient moments. (Note to the squeamish: One of them is a hardcore scene involving someone’s popped boil.)

This is Mendoza’s seventh film in four years, and his fearlessness and sure hand with actors (particularly child actors) mark him as a major filmmaker. Serbis played in competition at the Cannes Film Festival this year, where it shocked a good part of the audience. Last night’s screening wasn’t as scandalous (though there were some "Well, I never" kinds of entertaining walk-outs), but it also provoked the realization that Mendoza is someone to watch. I’ll write more about this after Saturday’s screening, which I eagerly await.


Francis said...

As a Filipino, and a film aficionado, I am very excited, but also apprehensive, to see "Serbis". I'll be there tonight at 7:30. From the reviews coming out of Cannes and New York, there's a lot of "shock value" in the movie that may not be totally reflective (in fact may be a subversion) of Filipino culture, society, and mores. Anyway, I'll have to see tonight.

Ben Sachs said...

I see your point, Francis. At tonight's screening, much of the crowd consisted of Filipino families excited to see a rare presentation of Filipino cinema in Chicago, and few of them seemed to know what they were paying for. On the way out, I saw a lot of upset parents and grandparents, a few of them actually scolding their children for taking them to such a film.

What I like about "Serbis" is that its subject doesn't seem reflective of the society as a whole. The Family Cinema we see in the movie practically feels like a country unto itself.

Watching the film a second time, I realized how much admiration Mendoza and his cast seem to have for these characters. Yes, they are dysfunctional and willing to do almost anything for money, but they demonstrate a personal brand of integrity through it all. The way Leyda pals around with the regulars who are there to cruise, for instance, shows her commitment to being a good hostess, regardless of the context.

My interpretation of "Serbis" is that it's actually a subversion of commonly prejudices about poverty (as immoral, unsympathetic, suffered solitarily, etc.), but then Mendoza's approach doesn't provide many hints one way or the other.

Francis said...

Hi Ben. I actually really liked and admired "Serbis", despite my preconceptions. I think it's a very insightful and honest portrayal of contemporary Philippine society. The Family movie theater milieu is reflective of an erosion of values in Philippine society as a whole. I've blogged about my impressions and perspectives about it in my personal arts and culture blog.