Monday, March 16, 2009
Brillante Mendoza's Serbis is the movie Slumdog Millionaire should have been; provocative, illuminating, and accurate in its use of metaphor to describe a country's social climate. The Filipino film is not for the casual moviegoer. It doesn't shy away from explicit sexuality in its depiction of a societal microcosm within the walls of a family owned and operated adult movie theater. It is noisy and chaotic, reminding us of the city outside, but never venturing too far from the confines of the moviehouse. Unlike Slumdog, Serbis is unwilling to succumb to the temptation of half-baked American influences in telling its story. The film's title refers to the hustlers that frequent the 24-hour movie theater soliciting payment from homosexual patrons in Tagalog in return for full service, "Serbis?" - implied sex acts, of course. But the film does anything but imply sexuality. There is graphic nudity and sex, both homo- and heterosexual. The theater (wryly named Family), is home to the owner, Auntie Flor (Gina Pareño), and her extended family. As the decaying theater crumbles around them, its bathrooms disgustingly flooding, the paint peeling off its walls, we are like a fly on the wall observing the travails of Flor's family over the course of a day. Flor is seeking a legal separation from the unseen family patriarch. Son Alan (Coco Martin) contends with a pregnant girlfriend while limping from a nasty boil on his butt. Son-in-law Lando (Julio Diaz) runs the canteen downstairs, diligently taking his son to school, while his wife, Nayda (Jacklyn Jose) tries to hold the failing business together. And all the while, the family casts a blind eye to the shady business dealings occurring inside the theater. The movie's soundtrack is devoid of any score save for source music and opening and closing credit themes. It more than makes up for this with a densely attuned ear towards ambient sound. One is always aware of the city life outside, streaming through the open-air terraces that surround the stairs of the Family theater. It makes the Family (and metaphorically, Flor's family) both rooted in the city yet distinctly removed from it, as if an outcast. Nayda, most closely tied to the theater's day-to-day responsibilities, never leaves its environs, often looking at the passersby from a window. The most exciting quality of Serbis is its unflinching acceptance of what it is; a gritty, but not hopeless, take on the tough life many of us here are entirely ignorant of. Rather than ground its repellent incidents in the palatable American underdog genre tropes as Slumdog did in its use of the game show metaphor, Serbis instead defiantly declares its identity as an alien, or more precisely, foreign film. Serbis captures a way of life foreign to our eyes, and doesn't compromise itself in doing so. Serbis is in limited release. In Atlanta, it is now showing at the Regal Tara Cinemas, 2345 Cheshire Bridge Road N.E., Atlanta, GA 30324, (404) 634-5661 Still provided courtesy of Regent Releasing.