TIFF '08 Review: SERBIS by Brillante Mendoza

Serbis

Service / Serbis

http://tiff08.ca/filmsandschedules/films/serbis

by Leonard

Brillante Mendoza's latest offering "Serbis" played the Toronto Film Festival this past week, shocking average white film nerds and unwary Pinoy Showbiz-hungry Titas alike with gratuitous on-camera sex, full frontal (and rear) nudity, prostitution and some incest thrown in there for good measure.

"Is that what it means?!?!" exclaimed the the shiny-bald American moviegoer in front of me in the line.  "Yeah.  Serbis.  You know -- like SERVICE," said the Filipina woman, stressing the 'V' and then stating very plainly: "Prostitution."

Judging on the aforementioned sexual content, it would be easy to relegate Mendoza's latest festival entry as just another one of the cheap and trashy bold films that make up so much of the Filipino cinematic landscape, but that would be only scratching at the surface of the film's true depth.  In reality, the layers in 'Serbis' go as deep as the Philippines inherent problems.

The film takes place almost entirely inside a soft-porn theatre named ironically, and yet fittingly: Family.  And this is what 'Serbis' focuses on -- one family's day-to-day struggle to survive everyday life in the Philippines, but even more so -- the struggle of the women in this story to keep the family together.

The two main characters are played by Jaclyn Jose (you might remember her from Ang Pamana) and classic-era actress Gina Pareno, who play daughter and mother, respectively.  Each woman is charged with keeping the rest of the family in check.  Jose toils between the day-to-day operations of the theatre, two oversexed nephews, an inept husband and impressionable children not to mention the fragile ecosystem of the theatre's inner-sanctum -- teenage prostitutes and their admission-paying patrons, while Pareno fights her battle on a different front, defending her family's honour and integrity in the face of moral breakdown and betrayal.

Despite solid performances from two of Filipino cinema's grand dames, it's probably the theatre itself that is the film's real star.  It's a shadow of its former self, a ruin of once-great legacies with scars that even layer upon layer of new paint cannot conceal.  The camera follows the characters up and down the stairs and into every nook and cranny and into the darkest abyss where the most taboo and forbidden acts are being committed in the dark, again ironically inside this theatre called "Family".

So maybe that is what 'Serbis' is truly about: Family.  How the Filipino family unit is threatened, how women are and have been the backbone of the Filipino family and have taken the brunt of the heavy burden in raising it and how a lifetime of 'service' to family too often ends up coming to a thankless and tragic end.  

Is it sensational big-screen titillation meant to arouse controversy, protests and loins?  The answer is YES, with a caveat.  It is also a no-holds-barred commentary on a country that comes to terms with its present by sacrificing its future while refusing to learn from its past.  Is it hard to watch?  Yes.  Should you watch it?  Yes you should, because sometimes truth is hard to look in the eye.

In stepping back and looking at Mendoza's dilapidated theatre as an allegory for the Philippines and its current state, the film's title -- 'Serbis' -- takes on an alternate meaning and a heartbreaking significance.

The screenings most telling moment may well have been during the Q&A following the film, when an older Filipina immigrant who had been in Canada for the past 15 years stood up and asked, "Is this really happening in our country?"

Direk Brillante Mendoza nonchalantly replied almost as plainly as the woman in the line up, "Well... yes.  It IS happening.  That's why I made this film."

(l-r) Me and Direk Romeo on set with Direk Brillante Mendoza circa 2005

(Brillante Mendoza is the first director to be included at Cannes since Lino Brocka almost 20 years ago.  TIFF screens the Lino Brocka classic, 'Bayan Ko' tonight at the Varsity. - .ed)