Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Serbis (2008, Brillante Mendoza)

Serbis competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008. Critics were divided over the merits of the film by Mendoza. When it crossed over the Atlantic, it was met with mostly positive reviews by American critics. It is still one of the highest-rated Filipino films tracked at the Metacritic site.

I have seen two versions of Serbis but I still haven’t seen the Cannes Film Festival version that polarized critics. The indieSine version is a heavily-cut R-18 film with valuable English subtitles. The censored scenes were re-integrated back for the UP Cine Adarna run of the film. Alas, the so-called Director’s Cut version did not have English subtitles making it difficult for viewers to take a grasp of Ilocano and Kapampangan dialogues. And apparently, it was not the definitive version. The DVD version of the film is probably the ultimate version. It seems to feature Coco Martin’s frontal nudity scene, which was not shown (censored?) at the initial UP Cine Adarna run.

Frontal nudity and graphic sex scenes abound in this movie. The initial scene shows a naked nubile girl preening in front of a mirror. She repeatedly whispers the words ‘I love you,’ which are barely heard amidst the noise of motor vehicles outside the room. Eighty-eight minutes later, I was muttering ‘I love this film.’

With Serbis, scriptwriter Armando Lao shows why he is the master and originator of the ‘real-time’ mode, which emphasizes the power of the place. In this film, Lao deals with the lives of denizens in a decaying movie house that features soft-porn flicks. Nanay Flor (played magnificently by Gina Pareño), matriarch of the family running the crumbling business, is deeply involved in a case against her philandering husband. Her daughter Nayda (Jaclyn Jose) gets embroiled in an incestuous relationship. Male prostitutes loiter in the lobby. At the end of the film, a movie house employee named Alan (Coco Martin) had enough of filthy things and promptly leaves the place.

A major strength of the film is its realism. The audience squirms as Alan cleans the clogged toilets and his buttock. These and other scenes of squalor are probably alien to foreign critics who lambasted the film. But, there are scenes that should have been excluded or minimized. Mendoza sometimes belittles the intelligence of his audience. A case in point is a scene showing a vehicle clearly going the wrong way. Mendoza finds it necessary to supply a close-up shot of the ‘One-way’ sign.

The trademark kinetic camerawork of a ‘real-time’ film is also here. The camera follows Nayda as she traverses the stairways and dark hallways of the movie theater. After opening the door of the projection room, she seems to be taken aback by what she sees. The scene then cuts to a shot of a hunky projectionist playing with himself.

The Movie and Television Review and Classification Board initially gave the film an X rating. In response to the board’s action, Dante Mendoza and Bing Lao inexplicably sought a compromise and allowed the snipping of some scenes in order for the film to be shown in a mall in 2008. That was a grave mistake committed by the duo. What does it profit filmmakers if they gain a wider audience but loses their creative vision and soul?

Mendoza learned his lesson and vowed not to show future films in an edited version. In anticipation of the full run of Lao and Mendoza’s Kinatay at UP Cine Adarna, the UP Film Institute is showing award-winning works of Mendoza such as Serbis, Masahista, Manoro, and Tirador during this month of September 2009. Excluding Masahista, all films are recommended especially Serbis, a top-notch example of ‘real-time’ films.


  1. I'll be there in UP FI this week, no org work to do... weee!

  2. Adrian, better call the UPFI to confirm the films and screening schedules. I'll be there on Monday afternoon to catch up with the Mendoza films, Manoro and Tirador. I hope the screenings push through. Will keep you posted...