Director: Brillante Mendoza
Cast: Coco Martin, Gina Pareno, Jacklyn Jose,
Run time: 90 minutes
Price: $20 at NYFF
I'll start of by saying that I actually am glad I saw Serbis, even though the freaking New York Film Festival charged me the the price of 20 dollar vids in order to see it. I mean, who do these NYFF fools think they are? GOD!
But I digress. Here are the reasons I am glad I saw Serbis.
1. I have never before seen a movie from the Phillipines, so it gave me a cursory glance at their film culture.
2. On a similar note, this is the kind of movie that might not get too much of a release beyond the festival circuit, since it is not a Wes Anderson rip off featuring over-educated white kids with a script ripped from Urban Dictionary, or an Oscarbatory big budget November surprise. Instead, it is low budget in a way where that actually means something. Also, it has so much nudity that it would have to have an NC17 rating here.
3. Nothing warms my nerdy heart like a decaying movie theater film.
That being said, Serbis is a deeply flawed movie. On paper it sounds pretty fantastic. Its got family melodrama, prostitution, theft, and absurdism, all occurring in a run down colonial relic of a movie house, that now only shows porn. By my standards, these combined elements sound like a winning formula.
However, Serbis teaches the viewer that good ideas simply aren't enough. While I watched it, the most startling element was the amount of potential that was being squandered. The movie dilapidated movie house, which really is an incredible setting, is done a disservice by being filled with such hollow characters. The Pineda family consist of a meandering crew of cousins, aunts, and uncles who all live and work in the "Family" movie house, which currently only shows porn movies. Also populating the building are gay hustlers, and and a few female prostitutes. While many of the characters in the film have some potential, their story lines are underdeveloped, leaving the viewer little to clasp onto. The main drama of the film is Mama Flor's case against her estranged husband, who took up with and started a family with his mistress. She irrationally seeks retribution from the justice system for this emotional abandonment, and resents her children for not wanting to see their father go to jail. Despite Flor's misguided intentions, this plot line could have been quite interesting. However, the entire court case takes place off screen, and all we are left with is the lackluster before and after. Meanwhile, the plots that are actually happening within the house are pretty dull. A character played by pretty boy Coco Martin gets his girlfriend pregnant and pops a boil on his butt. Nayda (who is the DE facto matriarch since Flor is such a drama queen) is in love with her cousin, but since we are not given a good revelatory scene dealing with this love, it also falls flat. The characters in this film wander around the frame without any purpose or heft, and alienate more than they engross.
The naturalistic style in which this is filmed and recorded is something that I appreciate, but I can't say that it is particularly well done. While a little bit of shaky camera movement can be effective, in this film it often looks amateurish, and does not achieve its aesthetic potential. As for the soundtrack, while I see what they were trying to do with all that background noise, it once again seems sloppily done. A more effective approach may have been to have a few more nearly silent moments to provide some contrast that may have been effective to the film's cause.
There are a few truly wonderful moments in the film. My favorite is the scene in which a goat somehow gets into the movie theater, causing the employees to turn the lights on, revealing many audience members who are in very compromising positions. If the film had more scenes that were this refreshing, it would truly be the gem that it promised to be. However, very little of the film is as imaginative as this. I also must add that the last image of the film is something that I consider the type of technical misstep that one wouldn't even subject their freshman year film class to. While two characters are talking, a very digital looking image of burning celluloid overtakes the frame. It is not appropriate considering the content of the previous 89 minutes and 50 seconds, and has been done with much more skill in other (better) films. Ending one's movie on such a note to my mind is a real blunder.
Once again, the premise of this film is promising enough to carry a forgiving spectator through it, but the execution is severely lacking. Serbis was the first Filipino film I have seen, and I hope to view some of the nation's more impressive offerings soon.