Review by the venerable Slate Honey
Brillante Mendoza takes a porno theater ironically named the Family in the Filipino city of Angeles as the bleak setting for a drama about family dysfunction and sexual dystopia in his film “Serbis.” The Pinedas have a pile of problems to deal with: Mama (grandmother Pineda) has taken her husband to court for abandoning the Pinedas for a new wife and family, a boy taken in by the Pinedas has impregnated his distraught girlfriend, the theatre is physically falling apart and no longer is making a good living, the father is generally despondent and useless, another boy taken in by the family to work as the projectionist is adolescent bait for the mom, and a teenage sister (the first to appear in the film, naked and flirting with her own image in a mirror) seems a nuisance to her mother just for being around.
The frenetic camera work and terribly recorded, barely audible soundtrack are major distractions from the overload of dramatic set-ups in this gritty film. Following the characters who run around frantically from fairly mundane situation to situation, the camera movement often feels nauseating and the suspenseful pace feels forced. Add to that cuts that seem to linger without good reason and a hodgepodge structure. The film’s possible saving grace lies in the performances which are rendered with seriousness and the believability of the dreary setting. The choice of using the truly dilapidated porno theatre offers the possibility of interesting socio-cultural commentary.
Unfortunately, “Serbis” does not take the bait in my opinion, instead relying on thickly-lain shock value, forced suspense and aesthetic realism to carry the film. After the film abruptly ended with a post-production trick (the film disintegrates on screen as if burning before our eyes), I was left with huge questions about Mendoza’s intentions an skepticism about his strong messages about sexuality, queerness and dysfunction.
Mendoza juxtaposes and relates the Pineda family and the queer theatre attendees in different webs of desire. Grandmother Mama and her daughter play-flirt with regulars to keep them coming back. The teenage daughter happily trails a sex worker on the grand staircase, learning hip-swinging moves and ultimately getting slapped on the face by her mother for it. The projectionist unemotionally accepts blowjobs from a sex worker. Mendoza makes a collage of the characters sidling queers and sex workers (the supposed degenerates of society) with the family members seemingly trapped in their poverty and unhappiness. The intimacy between these parallel worlds and the intermingling of the worlds becomes a place of tension.
I wonder what Mendoza’s intentions are in his portrait of the queers, queens and trannies of the Phillipines. Who are they beyond symbolism for hetero dysfunction? Sexuality and queer expression is distinctly different in many parts of Southeast Asia where the transgender sex worker community is in some ways more visible (though undoubtedly equally as oppressed and unsupported in society as in the West). To portray this community, to follow the girls (and also the queens) in their comfort zone, demands, in my opinion, a complex rendering of characters. “Serbis” is so focused on the hetero family losing its mind and means in this broken down theatre, it only offers glimpses of a free-spirited world of queers who come to the theatre to hang out and make their own living. Part of me wonders if I am too skeptical and if Mendoza intends a portrait of hetero dysfunction so caught up in itself and resigned to a dark fate that it dismisses and loses sight of the light-heartedness and contentment of the queer world around it.
The last scene of the film gave me reason to land on a more skeptical view. In it, a boy and a john sit on the verandah of the Family theatre chatting. Suddenly, a hole appears at the center of the image and the film burns and melts away as the soundtrack becomes warped. Mendoza’s last trick seems to imply that queerness is the root of the Pinedas’ sinful disintegration. “Serbis” is playing at the Angelika until February 12th.