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.