Dir. Brillante Ma.Mendoza. Philippines/France. 2008. 94mins.
Since he shifted from production design to directing with The Masseur (2005), a static misfire about a gay massage parlor in the provinces of his native Philippines, Mendoza has made up for lost time by cranking out four films since (including one documentary), all low-budget,showing mastery in a variety of genres. With Serbis (Service), his first feature with foreign (French) backing, he has taken a giant step in the wrong direction, even if The Masseur’s numbing stasis has been supplanted by an unpleasant, ADD-like dynamism. Just as he was becoming the new darling of the festival circuit,Mendoza’s rising star will stall, at least temporarily, and the film’s commercial prospectes should be muted.
The three features he made between The Masseur and Serbis focus on personal relationships, whether tender or antagonistic, in the context of social issues in the Philippines; yet Serbis fails to develop either front. Summer Heat (2006) is a moving, leisurely-paced melodrama about the three obedient daughters of an abusive old man who is a product of the culture’s rampant machismo. Foster Child (2007) is a hybrid of a calm ‘woman’s film’ - the bond between a poor slum dweller and the child she raises temporarily for a wage - and a documentary-like portrait of a large city. Slingshot (2007), on the other hand, is fast-paced through and through, and feels like the best kind of documentary, as it follows a gang of amoral teen toughs through wretched slums.
Serbis has little social value, except for the backdrop of economic hardship that is endemic in the Philippines. The multiple characters are all members of an extended family which runs and inhabits a fading four-storey ‘adults only’ cinema in a provincial city. While all have personal problems, most appear hyperactive, running up and down the stairs or across hallways in their cavernous cinema. For the first time Armando Lao, who had supervised Mendoza’s earlier screenplays, has sole screenwriter credit. Might this have impacted the vision of the director, who had previously written his own scripts’ Did the additional budget have a negative effect’
The most interesting member of the family is the striking Nanay Flor (Pareno), whose legal case against her bigamist husband gets the plot off the ground. She loses in court, but by film’s end regains her elegance. Yet the transformation is incongruous with the grunge of this decaying movie house where gays and straights service each other for cash - much of the backroom action feels tacked on, as does the recurring nudity - and the films are cheesy at best.
The issues her offspring deal with - an unexpected pregnancy, an unrequited crush, a buttocks boil that just won’t go away - appear trite, even lazy scriptwise. Nanay Flor’s entire adult history has been altered by her spouse’s infidelity, not to mention that the family faces losing their iffy source of income (they have already lost two theaters).
Some of Mendoza’s trademark formal devices remain from his earlier work. Ambient sound, particularly loud traffic noises, are always present, as they are in Filipino urban life. When Alan (Martin), the son with the boil, runs away at the end of the film, he passes a religious procession, but whereas this sort of ritual is integrated in the filmmaker’s earlier work, here it feels like a postscript. Strong, charismatic women, such as Nanay Flor and her middle-aged daughter Nayda (Jose), do make their mark, as they frequently do in the other works, a reflection of Filipino family life.
Yet events move too rapidly for the sentiment that Mendoza is generally so expert in developing to have any opportunity to blossom here. Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang already successfully mined this material in his ode to the last days of a movie house, Goodbye, Dragon Inn. If you are looking for The Last Picture Show, search elsewhere.
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