Film Review: 'Serbis'

Bottom line: An engaging domestic drama and stylishly seamy homage to the gay cinema rendezvous.

Cannes Film Festival, In Competition

Taking place mostly in a porno theater ironically, yet fittingly, named Family, "Serbis" is part homage to cinema, part intimate domestic drama that vividly details the tangled relations and all-too human frailties of an extended family running a theater in the provincial Philippines.

Director Brillante Mendoza continues the neo-realist vein of "Foster Child" and "Sling Shot" in "Serbis," but displays marked improvement -- both the grunge aesthetic and film language now bear his personal handwriting. To this, he adds some bristling sexuality, both gay and straight.

"Serbis" contains elements of soap opera from popular Philippine cinema and TV, but without any of the froth and lather. Unspooling at an almost real-time pace, with a narrative that is all foreplay and no conventional climax, the film won't win any commercial converts to the Philippine new wave. Festival and art-house bookings are optimistic though.

The film adopts a worldly and tolerant attitude in dramatizing the double standards in operation every day at a porn theater that has involved into a hotbed for rentboys to service gay clients (hence the title, which means "service"). Gena Pareno ("Kubrador") is a towering presence, who puts fire and tears into her multiple roles -- as a wife clenching the bitterness of abandonment, an aggrieved mother feeling betrayed by her children's divided loyalty to their father and the pillar that holds together the tottering family business.

But the theater itself may be the film's real star. Flooded toilets, running sores and steamy sex behind the projector that outperforms what's happening on screen create a dank, dripping texture and festering mood that echo most of Tsai's oeuvre.

The camera explores each nook and cranny of the dilapidated movie-house like an usher who knows his way round blindfolded, and the building, with its richly visual interior structures desperately in need of an overhaul, comes to symbolize poetically the predicament of its inhabitants and their moral ambiguity.

Cast: Gina Pareno, Jaclyn Jose, Coco Martin, Roxanne Jordan. Director: Brillante Mendoza. Screenwriter: Armando Lao. Producer: Ferdinand Lapuz. Director of photography: Odyssey Flores. Production designer: Benjamin Padero, Carlo Tabije. Music: Gian Gianan. Editor: Claire Villa-Real.
Center Stage Prods./Swift Prods.
Sales: Fortissimo Films.
No MPAA rating, 90 minutes.