A Family's Affairs, In A Venue Full Of Surprises

Roxanna Jordan i i

hide captionAdult Education: The teenage Jewel (Roxanna Jordan) lives and works at her family's theater, where what's onscreen is no more lurid than the goings-on among the aisles.

Regent Releasing
Roxanna Jordan

Adult Education: The teenage Jewel (Roxanna Jordan) lives and works at her family's theater, where what's onscreen is no more lurid than the goings-on among the aisles.

Regent Releasing

Serbis

  • Director: Brillante Mendoza
  • Genre: Slice-of-life neorealism
  • Running Time: 85 minutes

Not Rated: Nudity, shadowy but explicit sex

Coco Martin i i

hide captionSilence is golden: Alan (Coco Martin) finds a private moment between crises.

Regent Releasing
Coco Martin

Silence is golden: Alan (Coco Martin) finds a private moment between crises.

Regent Releasing

The marquee outside the dilapidated Philippines movie house reads "Family," which is both appropriate and wildly incongruous. The cinema is home to the Pineda clan, who work and live in the building's back rooms. But Flor (Gina Pareno) and her brood don't present family entertainment. They run a porn theater.

Director Brillante Mendoza's rough-edged yet open-hearted Serbis ("Service") opens with a shot of the teenage Jewel (Roxanne Jordan), who's contemplating her nude body in front of a mirror. As she murmurs "I love you" to an imaginary paramour, her erotic reverie is shattered — she turns to spy her kindergarten-age nephew watching her.

Jewel shouldn't have expected privacy, it turns out. She and her extended family live in close quarters, with each other as well as with their clientele. The theater pulses with activity, much of it illicit, and the meaning of the film's title is soon revealed: "Service?" is the question gay prostitutes pose to their potential clients, many of whom visit the theater for more of a release than viewing a porn flick can provide.

Set in and around the Family on a single day, Serbis has too many characters and tangents ever to coalesce into a drama. It's more of a comedy, though not a gentle one. Awash with fluids from wet laundry and overflowing urinals, the Family theater is clearly sinking.

The Pinedas may drown with it, but their life force remains vital. Today is the day, Flora hopes, that a judge will declare her estranged husband a bigamist. Meanwhile, her nephew Alan (Coco Martin) confesses that he's gotten his girlfriend pregnant, and her daughter Nayda (Jaclyn Jose) angrily interrupts her cousin Ronald (Kristofer King) while he's receiving a sexual favor in the projection booth.

"This is not a whorehouse," Nayda roars, yet her reaction may have more to do with jealousy than propriety. According to one of the many scurrilous graffiti on the theater walls, Nayda prefers Ronald to her sadsack husband Lando (Julio Diaz), who runs the theater's cafe.

Shown at the Cannes and New York film festivals, Serbis is actually less confrontational than Mendoza's previous movie, Slingshot, which was set in a Filipino shantytown. Both films are handheld-camera tours of teeming subcultures, characterized by vigor, candor and a mischievous pleasure in lurid details. But Mendoza's latest is bit cooler in technique and a touch warmer in outlook.

In some ways, the film recalls Taiwanese director Ming-liang Tsai's Goodbye, Dragon Inn, which occurs on the final night of a (non-porn) cinema. Despite concluding Serbis with a movie-biz joke, however, Mendoza seems less interested than Tsai in the state of cinema.

Instead, the filmmaker seeks to capture the sense and spirit of life in his homeland's poorest, most crowded environs. As his camera tracks up threadbare staircases and through ratty corridors, Mendoza conveys a sense of elation. The Family may have become a wreck, but it's still a grand old place.

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