Serbis arrives in Philippine theatres loaded with anticipation and curiosity -- fresh from competition at Cannes Film Festival (a rare feat for a Filipino film), and amidst reviews that either applaud or lambaste. The sad truth is that Serbis deserves neither impassioned responses; It's a mediocre film.
The premise -- a day in the life of a family who runs a decrepit soft-porn movie theater where gay sex is peddled -- is interesting, but let's face it, it also sounds like a leftover concept from the age of Brocka and Bernal, when the expose of dirty city digs is fascinating enough to be its own social commentary. And therein lies the problematic contradiction that runs across every aspect of Serbis: It's a repackaging of cinematic cliches as art.
Seemingly nothing happens as we follow people around the labyrinthine corridors of the movie theater, in a formal style some people would like to call "real time" but incorrectly, since an entire day is compressed into 90 minutes viewing time. Others may wish to call it non-event or non-drama, but this too is incorrect, since in practically every movement and every pause, the camera is searching for things that may lend the film some hidden drama or meaning, such as when shots are punctuated by written signs in various corners of the theater, for ironic effect, or when we stay long enough to ogle at the misery of the characters. It's ultimately an irritating aesthetic -- as if the person behind the camera was too hip to invest emotion (a fake objectivity) but is also an arrogant son-of-a-bitch who points at things to say he's seeing something important and maybe we should see it too. It's the equivalent of a politician speaking gibberish with a small stick.
What this importance is is a big question mark. Serbis seems to provide a commentary on voyeurism and exploitation, but this too seems like a subject from the old new wave, a counterculture concern from the 60's, especially since no fresh insight is extracted. So we're watching a movie and the point is in the watching? Who cares about this anymore? It's a concern that seems bourgeoisie especially in a film that emphasizes small people squalor. The writer, Armando Lao, has explored an identical theme in 2000's Tuhog, but even that film seemed to express nothing more than exploitation in the movies exists. Whoopee, what a big, original statement.
Not even the nudity, sex, or the gross-out moments could provide power. Perhaps what the international critics who denounce the film's gratuity fail to realize is that the history of Philippine cinema is filled with exploitative entertainment. Serbis doesn't have the jolt or the fun of many of these movies. It's limp in comparison. The scene of Coco Martin bursting a boil in his butt or sweeping dirty bathroom water, or of Kristofer King getting blowjobbed by a fag would have been delicious highlights if the film weren't too content on its cuteness. I do wish I could see the frontal exposure of hottie Coco Martin -- reportedly shot by the director in violation of his agreement with the actor -- but my love for Coco also makes me champion for its exclusion from the R-rated Philippine theatrical release, among other censored images.
A couple of other memorable scenes -- a burglar chased around the theater, and then later, a goat -- are also absurdist/realist, but they too come off as merely cute because they're contained in a film of soulless trend-riding. Director Brillante Mendoza has threaded similar territory before, most notably in Tirador, in which scenarios are played up for their third-world exoticism to act as assault on the senses. In Serbis, there was much of the shock tactics, but little feeling. It's your average substandard arthouse formula junk.