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Serbis

Dir. Brilliante Mendoza (Regent Releasing) -- 3.5 STARS

By Beryl C.D. Lipton, Crimson Staff Writer

Soft-core porn has rarely been as wonderfully unsexy as in Filipino director Brillante Mendoza’s thoroughly engaging drama “Serbis.” Rather than exposing the unseen underworld of the sex-for-sale industry, the film—shot in Tagalog with English subtitles—explores the complex moral conflicts that all-too-guilty pleasures cause in a country like the Philippines, itself conflicted by the secular influences left by decades as a Western territory on its actively religious tradition. Nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and showing at the Brattle Theatre through Sunday, Mendoza’s creation, despite lacking a distinctive plot or any particular innovation, is compelling nonetheless.

“Family” holds center stage, both as the name of the rundown adult film theatre that serves as the Pineda clan’s home and sole source of income, and as the core group responsible for the film’s relational dilemmas. Set against the background of a lawsuit between matriarch Nanay Flor (Gina Pareño) and her estranged husband, the film displays a day in the life of her large extended family’s impoverished existence. Her daughter Nayda (Jacklyn Jose) resents the unbreakable ties to this home that an unexpected pregnancy (and the ensuing marriage) reinforced, and her ambiguous romantic interest in her cousin Ronald (Kristoffer King) further complicates her emotions. Cousin Alan (Coco Martin) has impregnated his girlfriend, Merly (Mercedes Cabral)—a one-way ticket to the altar and another mouth to feed. And all the while, “service” men gather in the theatre’s lobby and cinema, selling themselves to the gay frequenters for as much as 300 pesos—the equivalent of about six American dollars—for “full-service.”

Despite the seemingly unique living situation, the normalcy of the characters’ condition is apparent, highlighted by the wonderfully realistic Filipino home and the convincingly resigned attitude the characters take toward their strife. The noise of motorbikes and jeepneys permeate many scenes, capturing the desperate chaos of the city. The sex is graphic—blow jobs are not faked, full nudity is not uncommon—but it does not possess the showiness or glamour of its Hollywood equivalent, and every sexual scene lacks a sense of arousal; the act, it seems, cannot truly be enjoyed. Awkward as it may be to watch any sex scene in a theatre, the most disturbing aspect of watching these relations stems from the look of unpleasant necessity, rather than pleasure, that occupy the participants’ faces. A nagging guilt, like the unpleasant boil on Cousin Alan’s ass, seems to haunt this most natural of drives for everyone.

“I’m a certified nurse,” Nayda sighs as she looks out a window. “What the hell am I doing here?”

Indeed, this seems to be the underlying sentiment of all the characters. An education being the only sure way to leave the dirty streets, the perceived helplessness of her position can only be explained by the stalemate on progress that tradition has caused. Likenesses of the Virgin Mary coexist alongside portraits of nude women; “Fucking relatives!” yells Nanay Flor when she hears the news of Merly’s pregnancy, but responsibility makes disowning her family as unthinkable an option as abortion.

Mendoza clearly displays the complex layout of the theatre and of the characters’ lives, but does not develop his subjects’ inner-workings any further than can be deciphered from the their captured actions. Actually, his faults lie in the moments when he strays from this show-don’t-tell strategy. When Ronald mistakenly gives a customer too much change, his worry seems too contrived; it has long been apparent that the family barely has enough money to live on, and the artificiality of this event unnecessarily reminds the audience that they are watching a carefully-constructed make-believe family and not the intimate goings-on of reality.

Though the Western viewer may be confused by the casually dressed lawyer, the small open store-front of the theatre, or the way that Nanay yells and hits a passive Alan after hearing of his irresponsibility, those familiar with the nearly universal characteristics of a Filipino city and familial dynamics will be moved by the accuracy with which Mendoza captures the environment of his characters.

By the end of “Serbis,” no problems have been resolved. One cousin throws his clothes into a backpack and, without a word, leaves the theatre, meaningfully weaving his way against the candle-bearing crowd of a funeral procession. But the rest are left behind to attend to their dilapidated movie house-of-homosexuals, caught between the old world and the new. “I’m not choosing sides!” shouts Naday in an earlier scene, and this attitude may be the root of their woes after all.

—Staff writer Beryl C.D. Lipton can be reached at blipton@fas.harvard.edu.

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