Serbis (2009) dir. Brillante Mendoza
Starring: Gina Pareño, Coco Martin, Roxanne Jordan, Dan Alvaro, Kristofer King
A Filipino porno house is the setting of this late arrival from last year's Cannes Film Festival. In the style of trendy social realism we get to see the slice of life of the family that run the theatre. The hardcore nudity (an erect cock or two) has given this film a bit of notoriety but it's all very brief and doesn't overwhelm. It's still niche material though, which, for the open-minded, provides an artful break from the blockbuster escapism inundating our multiplexes right now.
Mama Flor is the matriarch of the Pineda family, anxiously waiting for the court decision against her adulterous husband. Nephew Alan and his girlfriend are a pair of young lovers who've just realized they have an unwanted pregnancy, and another mouth to feed in the family. That's about all we get from Director Brillante Mendoza (newly crowned Best Director winner at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival), who follows his characters without traditional narratives or arcs, a loose backbone for this very loose but satisfying film.
Mendoza, also an art director, paints the film with the same palette as some of the great Wong Kar Wai films. The wide-angle camera shows us everything, moving fluidly through dingy corridors and freely up and down staircases. The walls have the worn texture of cracking plaster, graffiti and all its rough edges. He takes great care to show us his characters walking through these spaces and all the mundane details of their lives. Threading a film into a projector, mopping up a flooded bathroom and the home remedy removal of a boil on a guy's ass might sound dull but it's an environment we've never seen before, and it's surprisingly refreshing.
Mundane, perhaps, but Mendoza's imagery is not without meaning; his characters desire love or romance, and everything around them, from the posters of the skin flicks to the gay prostitutes and their seedy clientele, is a continual reminder of the dispassion in their lives. Interspersed are a few graphic scenes of matter-of-fact sex; they're not played for kicks though. The sex is quick and the skin, while uncensored, is not beautified. The title, meaning "service," plays into the tone of the sex as well and the rhythm of the entire film — a day in the life of working people, observed without judgment.
To escape from the blockbuster fare, Serbis might just be that naughty little Philippine art house flick you need to see. And the final shot is a stunner too.
This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca