directed by Brillante Mendoza (Regent Releasing, 2008)
With sex tourism by now a stereotypical feature of the exploitation of southeast Asia, Philippine director Brillante Mendoza’s latest feature Serbis deserves credit for making the sexual economy of its porn theater setting not only a wholly native-run family affair, but an environment of remarkable solidarity, however screwy. One of the choicest entries in this year’s New York Film Festival, the film takes place in the town of Angeles, where middle-aged matriarch Nanay Flor (Gina Pareno) and her eldest daughter Nayda (Jacky Jose) run an adult movie house aptly called ‘Family’.
The name references their clan of relatives, who operate and inhabit the establishment, as well as the regular patrons and hustlers who hang around the premises looking for clients to ‘service’. This pick-up call is announced by the film’s title in self-conscious acknowledgment of the graphic display of sex acts it serves up, as Mendoza renders body heat palpable to both indulge and demystify the cinema’s inherently erotic nostalgia. While a voyeuristically inclined viewpoint marrs the sensuous physicality that distinguished his previous docudrama Foster Child, the two aspects readily merge in the uncensored Cinema Paradiso atmosphere of Serbis.
The camera lingers in aisles and on stairways, confining the outside world within the walls of the house, where a bond of incestuous complicity alternately unleashes melodramatic face-offs and eases into solitary moments of quietude. The latter convey an eerie feeling of self-possession in the way they reflect resistance to the sufferings of loss and maintenance against inevitable decay, especially on the part of the leading ladies. The ever-strong Nayda, committed to her marriage yet secretly smitten with her cousin Ronald (Kristoffer King), breaks down in mournful tears in the face of lost love, and Nanay Flor, denied any financial compensation from her wayward husband after court rejects the bigamy case she brought against him, dresses up way beyond the call of duty to run her unprofitable box office. The character most in tune with the routine of damage control is Nanay’s son Alan (Coco Martin), who applies equally detached zeal to fixing the drain in the flooded men’s bathroom and tending to the boil on his behind.
A magical realist aesthetic governs accidental occurrences (Nayda breaking a plate) and disruptive invasions (by a thief, whom the entire house community chases down) that imbue seemingly random slapstick antics with an undercurrent of inexorable doom. Though Mendoza tends to lay the symbolism on a little thick, his film makes for a poignant cinematic elegy, culminating in celluloid conflagration. The heat is on and the picture spontaneously combusts in an act of movie magic no less radical than the gender-bending sexual empowerment of the disenfranchised (from a little boy’s triumphant lipstick put-on to a gay man’s loving marriage of convenience to a woman), which Serbis manifests with inspired irreverence.