By Andrew Schenker
[Serbis opens today at the Angelika Film Center in New York City. Click here for screening information.]
Like Goodbye, Dragon Inn without the protective layer of nostalgia, Brillante Mendoza's Serbis crafts a self-contained world from a dilapidated movie house given more to gay cruising than cinema watching. But whereas the theater in Tsai Ming-liang's film still offers relatively straight fare (classic wuxia films) and the sexual encounters come free of cost, the programming at Serbis' theater has given over entirely to porn and, in the relentless everything-for-profit world of Mendoza's film, each blowjob necessitates an exchange of pesos.
Busting at the seams with activity, The Family Theater is decidedly a family affair. Set in a noisy Filipino metropolis, the film details the lives of an extended clan who not only run the theater but live in it. From the aging matriarch, embroiled in a lawsuit against her bigamous husband, to the young boy who proudly recites his grade school arithmetic, Mendoza builds a multi-generational gallery of character sketches, all of whom assist in the day-to-day operation of the cinema. At the center of the film is Nayda (Jacklyn Jose), principal manager of both theater and family, an overeducated woman squandering her cultural capital maintaining what amounts to a brothel. Constantly in unhurried motion as she wends her way through the theater's cavernous alleys, she's a lone stabilizing force in a messy, chaotic world, a fixed point in Mendoza's intentionally rough visual scheme. While Odyssey Flores' handheld camera often lags behind the film's faster moving characters as it follows them around the theater, Nayda's steady, measured movements make sure that she remains ever in focus amidst the surrounding flux.
Because of the dual function of the theater (residence/social nexus) the boundaries between public and private are constantly blurring, the free intermingling between patrons and residents adding to the film's well established atmosphere of frenzy. At the Family, there is little opportunity for any character to maintain a personal privacy. When the young boy returns home from school, for example, he has to thread his way through a mass of lewd gesturing before he can regain his bedroom. And in an environment where sex unravels daily on the big screen and blowjobs are delivered out in the open, the possibilities for true sexual intimacy are even more severely limited.
The central sex scene between one of the younger family members, Alan (Coco Martin), and his girlfriend is immediately preceded by a shot of the white light of the film projector, so that at first the viewer thinks he's watching footage from the porn film being screened for the patrons instead of the intimate detailing of a supposedly private act. Throughout the sex, too, the soundtrack picks up snatches of overheard conversation and street traffic audible through the paper-thin walls. As Mendoza's viewers take in the awkward erotic fumbling of his young performers, so the Family Theater patrons watch their own filmed moments of onscreen coitus. The difference is that while the porn films are intended to arouse, Mendoza's sex scenes are intentionally unerotic, contrasting a commodified view of intercourse with the "real thing" in all its uncouth gawkiness. The result is, unsurprisingly, a scene that feels uncomfortably intimate. But that, of course is the point; we've come to require our onscreen sex to be properly filtered, if not for explicit content, then for lack of grace. And in Mendoza's blatantly uncommercial film, this filtering apparatus is pretty well absent.
But in Serbis, sex, like everything else, is first and foremost a question of economics. The theater itself, we learn, is the last in what was once a three-location chain and, with its marble columns and filigreed banisters, it was likely once an impressive operation. But now lewd graffiti covers the walls, filth stains the floors and the place seems to barely break even. And selling sex, whether virtual or actual, is hard work, a point Mendoza continually emphasizes with his lingering attention to the processes of labor. Whether detailing the physical legwork involved in screening the films (rewinding the heavy reels by hand, spooling the film through a Chaplinesque maze of gears and switches), the maintenance of the building (a nauseous bathroom cleaning) or the sex act itself (a graphic bit of fellatio), the director lingers just long enough on each activity to give us the felt weight of duration. But while each of these tasks is onerous, they're not entirely unpleasant. And while the lives of the characters may be comprised of just such labor-intensive activities in the pursuit of a not-particularly profitable enterprise, that isn't to imply that they're filled with nothing but misery. Amidst his critique of a debased free-market economy which impinges on individual privacy and reduces sex to commodity, Mendoza creates a vivid, flamboyant world that offers moments of humor (as when a goat makes its way into the theater) and sweetness (mostly involving the young boy) amidst the general sense of decay. Which is not to say that he ladles sugar atop his bitter portion, but that he understands the Family Theater as an extravagant, messy and always vital locus of activity and not merely as a stuffily schematic microcosm of late capitalist society.
Andrew Schenker is a freelance writer based in New York. His work can be accessed at The Cine File.