Film Festival Focus: Serbis

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serbis-from-the-philippines.jpgI had really low expectations for Serbis, Filipino director Brillante Mendoza’s film about a day in the life of a family who both run and live in a decrepit theater which is also a hotbed of gay male prostitution, set in the city of Angeles (where the US military bases used to be located), right outside Manila. It was shown at the Chicago International Film Festival over the weekend.  First, the reports and reviews from Cannes, where it was part of the Main Competition, the first Filipino film to be invited in 25 years, were disheartening – it was a highly divisive movie that received both ecstatic acclaim (including raves from Jury President Sean Penn) and withering, verging on the disgusted, negative notices (and quite a number of walkouts during its festival screening).   Second, I’m pretty cynical about the quality of Filipino films that had been shown at the Chicago Film Festival over the past several years.  I grew up in Manila in the 1980s, during a “Golden Age” of Philippine cinema and know the brilliant heights that Filipino directors (such as the late Lino Brocka, the only Filipino director until Mendoza, who had shown a film in the prestigious Main Competition section at Cannes) can achieve, if they put their minds to it, and if they get the right amount of funding and artistic support.  The Filipino movies that have rotated through the Festival in the past had been trashy, exploitative, and badly-constructed, including Mendoza’s one-dimensional bore, The Masseur.  Oddly, too, they were all focused on the sleazy side of gay sex and life in the Philippines (it almost seems like the Film Festival organizers kept on thinking- oh, we have this slot for a film about male prostitutes, their gay patrons, and the slums that they are all desperately trying to escape from, preferably with lots of gratuitous male-on-male sex and nudity, why don’t we go to the Philippines?  Despite what Saturday nights at Roscoe’s might suggest, NOT everyone in the Philippines is gay).  Serbis, which refers to the colloquial Tagalog for paid sex, seems to fit this bill quite nicely.  Well, Serbis proves that pre-conceptions are meant to be shattered, and expectations exceeded, because it is one of the most astonishing and memorable movies I saw at the Film Festival this year.  Imperfect, maddeningly self-indulgent at times, and yes, packed with gratuitous sex scenes and sensationalism, it also has searing social commentary, surprisingly detailed and incisive vignettes about Filipino culture, and the chutzpah to be an uncompromising, no-holds-barred, uniquely gutsy film that you won’t see anywhere else.

Everyone, including the usually tony and snobbishly intellectual New York Times film section, talks in amazement about the goat chase scene which happens near the end of the movie.  A goat wanders into the theater from nowhere, parks itself in front of the screen, and interrupts the non-stop sex trade going on inside the theater.  Everyone in the theater, patrons, prostitutes, the theater owners, all start chasing the goat.  The sequence is so ridiculously surreal, such a flabbergasting What-the-F moment, such a jolt in the arm for the film, that not a lot of viewers stop and think what the scene means within the larger context of the film’s themes (and by the way, it isn’t unlikely to encounter farm animals, among other things, inside movie theaters in the rural areas of the Philippines). My non-Filipino friend Joe (one half of power couple Henry and Joe) put it best, the people in the theater chase the goat for kicks, to break up the monotony of their degraded, bleak, hopelessly miserable lives, lives that they know they will unlikely be able to extricate themselves from. 

This economic and social degradation and hopelessness prevalent in Philippine society, as well as their complements, political and moral corruption, is excellently, if at times, shockingly, evoked in Serbis (helped immensely by the inspired production design and the jarring, powerful, cacophonous sound design).  The theater is run-down, filthy, overflowing with sewage and pockmarked with graffiti. You can’t believe that anyone would want to watch a movie in this place, have sex, live, or even run a cafeteria! The theater is full of gay men and transvestites prowling for sex with underage boys (the sex is graphically portrayed, so people with weak stomachs should stay away, but the economic fabric- the haggling, the bartering, the very explicit point that the boys are the ones in control of the commerce- is also very pointedly and clearly depicted).  The family matriarch, Fe (Gina Pareno, an actress I grew up watching, who turns in a magnificently towering performance, one of the best I’ve seen this year from any film from any country) loses her bigamy case against her husband due to bribery and graft within the Philippine legal system.  This is a sinking society that needs to be hauled out of the quicksand it has slid into.  But is that possible, when the core of Philippine society’s moral fiber, the family, is also eroding and self-destructing?   Mendoza’s insightful portrayal of the theme of the state of family values as both reflective of, and a driver for, the state of the social environment is the film’s chief strength, in my opinion.  People are getting married for the wrong reasons (the gay uncle gets married because he wants to be a father but continues to keep his gay lifestyle; Nayla, the eldest daughter, is trapped in a loveless marriage because she became pregnant and had to marry the father of her child, and is now harboring vaguely incestuous feelings for a distant relative, the theater’s projectionist, Ronald).  Fe’s children go behind her back and betray her in the bigamy case so they don’t have to share their inheritance with their half-siblings, who, according to Philippine law, will be legally recognized as their father’s heirs if he is found guilty of bigamy.  A mother wanders into the theater desperately looking for her 16 year old son because he has abandoned his family to “hang out” with his new family, his gay patrons.  When the name of the movie theater is finally revealed towards the middle of the film when many of these scenes have transpired, it’s a bitingly ironic moment- it’s the Family movie theater.

Serbis is definitely a flawed movie.  The pacing is often languid.  There are a lot of shots lingering on people walking up and down the huge theater (a derivative technique that Tsai Ming-liang already utilized in his elegiac Goodbye, Dragon Inn, the movie most commonly cited in the same breath as Serbis, which it actually does not resemble).  My BFF Andrew, film critic extraordinaire based in Manila, takes issue with the portrayal of the “seamy underbelly” of Philippine society, complete with the sensationalized scenes that shellshocked many audience members and provoked the audience walkouts.  I agree, I don’t need to see real fellatio being performed by a tranny on the the theater’s projectionist, or an ass boil being graphically popped in exteme close-up, complete with flowing puss and blood, or erect penises or lingering shots of a woman’s pubic area.  Mendoza could have kept the themes clearer, and the film tighter, without all this white noise of shock value.  But I, as well as the rest of the audience, do need to see the detailed scenes, so telling of Philippine culture and society, that Mendoza depicts:  cops routinely break the law and hire underage male prostitutes; people abuse the deeply-ingrained Filipino trait of “utang na loob” (the act of being obligated), cuttingly demonstrated by the fact that Fe’s lawyer eats for free in the theater’s cafeteria; poor people borrow money constantly from money lenders in order to pay off their bills; many unemployed Filipinos hang out in decrepit movie theaters, because they have nothing else to do (and do not have the will and wherewithal to do something about it).  All of these happen in the Philippines.  It’s depressing and frustrating for Filipinos, like me and Andrew, yes, but they’re true.  Socially-conscious filmmakers have the obligation to portray reality realistically – I’m not saying that Mendoza is on the same level as them, but the Dardenne brothers always portray the other Belgium- of pickpockets and slums and factory workers, not the Belgium of EU suits and Maniken Piss and Belgian chocolates that many of us know.  I, for one, don’t need to see a Filipino movie that is more suitable for a Travel Channel documentary, or for a Philippine Department of Tourism marketing campaign.  Mendoza may have somewhat muddled his vision with the sensationalism, but it is a vision of reality that I respect, highly appreciate and hope more people get to experience.

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5 Responses to “Film Festival Focus: Serbis”

  1. Henry Says:

    This is Henry of Henry & Joe. BTW we’re no Brangelina ;-). You couldn’t have said it better about the ‘seamy underbelly’ portrayed in the movie. I had told a lot of Filipino friends about Serbis before the screening at CIFF. The general responses i got, after telling them about what i know of the movie, is – why can’t they show something nice. I suppose that was human nature, and probably why film critics honed in on having to watch a boil being popped. But this is exactly the jolt in the arm that Philippine cinema needed.

  2. francis Says:

    Hi Henry- great point about jolting Philippine cinema. Regardless of what people think of the film, hopefully its buzz and high-profile opens more doors for Filipino movies to get wider distribution in the US and Europe.

  3. Vincent Says:

    Francis – great review…do you think the nudity and fellatio scenes were gratuitous and unnecessary in the movie? I’ve been mulling that. However…I won’t complain!

    I did love Serbis for the fact that the director (Brillante, who is brilliant in his own inimitable neo-realist style) does not sugarcoat things. The scenes in Angeles are exactly what one would see if they are familiar with the location.
    There are subtle and not-so-subtle political commentaries as well…such as when the police officer (Captain) went against the one-way street. That was actually a clever scene that only Filipinos familiar with the nuances of Philippine political culture understand. (Often with a chuckle).

    Obviously because of the low budget, some production values leave to be desired but I don’t want to fault the director for that, because in the larger scheme of things, Brillante told a story that had a lot of bravado and heart and, after a brief cause I thought that it was a unique movie experience that will not ever come out of Hollywood.

  4. francis Says:

    Hi Vincent- great points, and totally spot-on about this film being a unique experience (which is a relief given the fact that many films, regardless of country of origin, feel very much cookie-cutter). I do feel that the graphic sex scenes could have been trimmed, minimized, or deleted altogether, without compromising the film’s themes. That’s the same feeling I had for Patrice Chereau’s “Intimacy” which was shown in the Chicago Film Festival several years ago.

    Great to see you at the screening!

  5. Joe Says:

    As a film enthusiast and a literature teacher, I not only found the goat episode meaningful for the reasons you listed, Francis, but also because it paralleled the scene near the start of the film in which a crowd pursues a thief through the theater. If I revisited both those chase scenes, my guess is that I would see more similarities in the camerawork and “staging” of the scenes. Whether pursuing a human or goat (the god of debauchery, Pan?), anything out of the ordinary seems to send a spark throughout this very out-of-the-ordinary little community. They don’t seem to recognize how bizarre their behaviors are.

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