Thursday, March 05, 2009


Writing this review, I found myself wondering how the people who don't write reviews decide what they think about movies. That bit in the fourth paragraph isn't just me trying to give my writing some sort of flair or break up a bunch of analytical text with a personal touch; I honestly didn't get what the thrust of the movie was until halfway through the review.

The answer, I guess, is that people don't, whether you want to take that to mean that most people don't really decide what they think about a movie beyond first impressions, or just don't think about them at all. There's noting wrong with that, but a movie like Serbis can't just be ingested and then not considered; do that and it's just an annoying art-house movie with more sex than usual and no real story to connect its random scenes. It grows in stature as one ponders.

(Although, yeah, to a certain extent it is kind of an art-house movie with extra sex and minimal plot, but thinking about it made me realize that the various bits tie together much better than I initially thought.)

Serbis (Service)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 March 2009 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

Serbis takes its name from the code word which the gay hustlers who populate the film's setting use to signify their availability. After watching it, I wonder why director Brillante Mendoza decided why he wanted this to be the word representing his film, especially when "Family" was sitting right there, admittedly obvious but also fitting and ironic. The "servicing" seems to mostly be going on at the periphery, and it makes me wonder whether I'm missing some greater metaphor.

The setting is the Family Theater, aptly named in that it is owned, operated, and inhabited by three generations of the Pineda family; it's certainly not a place for the whole family, as it shows adult films and serves as a rendezvous and place of business for the local hustlers, prostitutes, and johns. Middle-aged Nayda (Jacklyn Jose) is handling most of the day-to-day operations, especially since her mother Flor (Gina Pareño) has recently been preoccupied by the legal proceedings against her husband (she's very worried that one son's testimony will allow him to go free). Nayda's husband Lando (Julio Diaz) mans the lunch counter between ferrying their son to and from school. Her cousin Alan (Coco Martin) paints murals and does odd jobs; in-law Ronald (Kristoffer King) handles projection. Every day is busy, but today is noteworthy; it's the day of the trial and also the day Alan's girlfriend Merly (Mercedes Cabral) shows up to put the extra pressure on him to share some information with Flor.

Both the family Pineda and Family Theater are sprawling and somewhat run-down. Although Nayda is a rock at the center of the family, most of the rest show some sign of physical or mental infirmity: Alan has a revolting boil on his bottom, Ronald limps, Lando forgets things. And while the Family looks like it might have been an impressive place once - it has a balcony, and a large sign in good repair - there are tiles missing from the floor, though, and early on we see the men's room fill with filthy water as the floor drain gets plugged up. The Pinedas have more or less let the sex trade take over the theater, which is not only their place of business but their home, and though there's not much hand-wringing about it, there's obviously some concern about how the environment is affecting the two youngest members of the family.

Ah, there it is; there's how the title reflects the heart of the film. Mendoza and writer Armando Lao do a good job of hiding it within a few lines of Flor's that don't overtly connect to everything else, but demonstrate just how warped priorities have become. I blame the sex for distracting me from this. Though IMDB shows the film as being R-rated, I'm surprised at that; the sex is quite explicit, and a throwaway line late in the movie makes the fairly innocent-seeming bit that opens the into something very uncomfortably voyeuristic. It's both more than I expected and more than I personally favor, and I'm not really sure it's the best way to tell the story, but it certainly does capture and focus the attention.

The way Mendoza and cinematographer Odyssey Flores shoot the theater also gets some notice. Like the sex, I sometimes get the feeling that the filmmakers are doing attention-grabbing things to give the audience something to talk up. There are a pair of chases through the theater that are kind of showy, for instance. They do help give audience members who haven't thought much about what happens behind the scenes at the theater an impression of how the wide-open public spaces can give way to cramped, labyrinthine work spaces and corridors (including the inevitable need to go up and down stairs to move between two rooms on the same level). There's some fine handheld camera work, and while we see a great deal of decay and squalor, especially within the theater, the Angeles neighborhood outside does show sparks of vitality to hint that there is hope to be found. The camera often seems reluctant to leave the theater; early on it seems to wait on the porch as Flor goes off to court, and it twists around to look straight up at the theater's sign rather than pulling back across the street for a wide shot.

As this sort of ensemble piece must, Serbis has a very nice cast, starting with the two women at the center. Jacklyn Jose and Gina Pareño play mother and daughter, but they are at the core two versions of the same character, at different points in their lives. Both Nadya and Flor are strong, uncompromising women, maybe beautiful in their youth but practical now, facing the life they find themselves in with resignation, anger, and desperation, depending on the circumstances. There's not a man in the movie quite so captivating as them; Coco Martin's Alan is interesting, but he's defined by his weakness, rather than his strength.

By the end, we may not have gotten a complete story, but the cast and crew have come together to give us an intriguing day in the life of the Family Theater. Not always a pleasant one, but one with turning points and one which will probably linger in the mind.

Also at EFC.

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