Abandon all hope, ye who enter the hell of images. Filipino director Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis (Tagalog for “service”) is entirely set in and around a candidate for the world’s tawdriest movie theater—a dingy hall of mirrors that’s hilariously but not inaccurately named the Family.
Located at the busiest intersection of the onetime Air Force base Angeles City, this cavernous bijou is operated as well as inhabited by the Pineda clan, petty bourgeois shopkeepers who exhibit straight porn for a mainly gay male clientele. At once a nose-to-the-grindstone mom-and-pop enterprise and gilded palace of perversion, the theater is a vast, poured-concrete labyrinth that begs to be scrubbed with ammonia and hosed down after closing. The Family is also a safe haven in a sea of rickshaws, horse carts, and vendors. Or is it? Throughout the movie, thunderous waves of traffic noise beat ceaselessly against the theater’s moldering walls, one soundtrack overwhelming another.
Hardly the first movie ever made about a movie house, Serbis—which was shown once at the last New York Film Festival—has affinities with Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) and Jacques Nolot’s Porn Theater (2002), but it’s less wistful and more graphic than either. Also more self-reflexive. Surrounded by giant posters of smoldering, barely sarong’d hotties, the Pinedas live both at the movies and in one, just as Mendoza’s film serves to comment on those that are screened. Opening with credits running over some artfully distressed footage, he waits about 10 seconds to give the audience full frontal nudity as a nubile young Pineda girl vamps before her mirror, mouthing “I love you” (in English), while her little nephew crouches in the shadows, glomming the scene.
Serbis is just a day in the Family’s life: As the boy’s father preps the concession stand’s deep-fried treats, another member of the Pineda clan freshens the paint on the gaudy posters of naked pulchritude that decorate the theater, then bandages a boil on his posterior. This particular morning is also the one on which the Family’s harried matriarch has her day in court—pressing bigamy charges against her estranged husband—although, given the range of her theater’s on- and off-screen activities, this extra drama is scarcely necessary. As the projectionist threads up the day’s first soft-core feature, Mendoza cuts to the sign painter having sex with his teenage (haplessly pregnant) girlfriend. And this is not the last explicit scene. The Family’s special appeal would seem to be the various hustlers, transvestite and otherwise, who take advantage of the darkened auditorium to solicit movie patrons with the promise of in-seat “service.” The projectionist accepts some himself.
Mendoza, a successful production designer who made his first low-budget feature four years ago at 45 (and has made six since), considers himself a neorealist. Serbis is his first 35mm film, but it’s scarcely less gritty than its predecessors as the constantly moving camera keeps close to the action. More outrageous than prurient, Serbis has no shortage of appalling details—its ideal spectator might be John Waters—but there’s probably something for everyone. The Family traffics in excitement. The theater’s staff engages in jealous fistfights and chases a thief around the building until he’s cornered, dangling from the balcony. The movie’s attention-grabbing disruptions include not just live sex, but livestock. In the midst of a primitive, and universally ignored, jungle rape staged by comically amateurish actors wearing what could be homemade Halloween costumes, a goat wanders out in front of the screen. All trysts are put on hold as audience members unite to chase the bleating embodiment of the reality principle out onto the street where, as providence would have it, a religious celebration is taking place.
The joke is characteristic of Mendoza’s self-referential humor. So, too, is the movie’s final gag, which collapses narrative and spectacle to literally burn a hole in the screen. For all its gross-outs, Serbis is an essentially modernist enterprise in which figure and ground, character-driven narrative and celluloid spectacle, are in continual flux. In another universe, perhaps Comedy Central, it could be a porn-based sitcom. But is that porn or meta porn? Serbis may be a raunch-fest, but it’s also a mind-trip—a raunch-fest with ideas.