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.
The three connected stories in Hugot each have a homoerotic bent. In "Anton", two guys in white briefs are play-acting a kind of surreal hotflash episode. It's pretentious in a psychodramatic and avant-gardish sort of way, but hey, the guys are in jockeys, they're far from body perfect but they're pleasant, so the preposterousness amounts to silly fun.
In "Bimbo", a couple of nursing student activists get coerced into a twisted strip game masterminded by a swishy gay man and his horny fag hag. It's also pretentious -- this time in a politically allusive sort of way -- but the guys do end up naked, with one dangling peekaboo. The episode practically screams it's a political one, yet remains frustratingly vague about what exactly that politics is. However, it is entertainingly over-the-top and ridiculously campy, especially when the sexy but naive female maid joins in.
"Raymond" is a more conventional drama, about a pensive hooligan who finds ways of earning money for his hospitalized brother, including turning gay tricks. This thread features the hottest fresh face in the cast, Jerome Ebreo, who's perfect as the kind of sexy young man you probably can't trust. Elsewhere, the ensemble includes Christopher Canizares, Cris Castillo, Alvin Espinosa, Jaws Andrada, Eric Bejo, and Keno Abela.
The most satisfying part of Hugot comes when we finally make sense of the glue that links the three stories. But it's merely a nifty trick, because although a certain unity is created, the movie doesn't really achieve coherence. You may say to yourself: At last, the story makes sense! Only to ask later: Does it, really? Hugot, though fun, is ultimately a splattering of thinly articulated themes.
The theme of power and subordination rings clearest, but rather alarming. All of the homosexual characters in the movie are persons who wield their money and authority at their straight young baits. (They are: the gay cop who pays for sex, the gay housemaster who throws money at his toys, and the tranny who just won 8 thousand pesos at a beauty pageant.) Hugot takes the ruthless view that the power of homosexuals is money while the power of straight men is sex, that straights and gays are in a continuing, generation-after-generation struggle for dominance, and that the state of being desired by a homosexual is essentially a state of victimization. It is perhaps only a depiction of reality when Raymond uses his sexual upperhand to turn the tables on the victimizing class -- to seduce then harm a gay man for monetary gain, justified as an act of survival. It's a relevant issue in our age when men who extort money from their gay lovers is public news. In a movie like Hugot, we must ask: When does a depiction of a prevailing stereotypical mindset also become a dangerous propagation of the same?
A gay couple wakes up to find one of them is pregnant with child. The 11-minute Ang Kapalaran Ni Virgin Mario, which opens the shorts anthology called Katorse Shorts, proceeds from its clever what-if situation to tap cutesy-edgy humor -- mostly through the characters' irrational behavior (like, trying to kill the baby through the penis slit?) and dialogue brain-ticklers (like, How can he be pregnant when he's the top in the relationship?). The premise is mainly an appropriation of a straight-couple dillema to a gay one, which probably has Meaning. But the moment an angel appears to proclaim the second coming of God to change the minds of the two men, I had to wonder if the film succeeds more as religious anti-abortion statement than anything truly out-of-the-box. If there are messages about country (with its red, white, and blue minimal design), religion, gender, or family, none of it is clear or emotional enough. I wished the what-if short added up to more than a what-if.
The formula for these mid-length documentaries is as bad as it is simple: Take one sensational subject, a profession in the sex trade (strippers, sex masseurs, live sex performers), and give it the cheap tabloid treatment. While the real-life subjects' faces are hidden in shadows during their narrations, the most melodramatic cliches are emphasized through written texts, maybe to wake us up from the boring visuals, then interspersed with extreme close-ups of their bodies in re-enactments of their work. It's exploitation without revelation, in all senses of the word.
In both Ang Pagtatapat Ng Masahista and Ang Pagtatapat Ng Macho Dancer, the regurgitated stories of poor people forced to use their bodies for survival far outnumber anything remotely novel, unique, or even sincere, although there are a few interesting tidbits here and there -- that is, if you can stand the disintegrating visuals and listen to it like a bad radio interview. The naked body shots are only titillating in concept, though Macho Dancer is more watchable than the static Masahista. They're essentially longer, more human, only slightly better versions of network television's already awful, bullying, and uninsightful ratings-grabber "exposes" on the subject.
Ang Pagtatapat Ng Mga Sex Performer has less of the tabloid overemphasis, and also overall an improved video, mainly because the men -- who in real life, perform heterosexual sex in front of a live audience, or as toros in a torohan -- don't feel the need to be defensive about their masculinity, unlike many of the guys in the first two videos. They even sound sexy when they express pride in their macho work. (About half of the video features women subjects.) A performer's penis is almost visible through wet whities during a shower scene, and it's as close to a money shot as anything in the series.
Another video called Ang Pagtatapat Ng Mangkukulam focuses on similarly sensational tabloid fodder (the occult) but promises none of the sex, so I won't even bother.
GRADE: ANG PAGTATAPAT NG MASAHISTA: D ANG PAGTATAPAT NG MACHO DANCER: D ANG PAGTATAPAT NG MGA SEX PERFORMER: C