Wild antics in a theater of ill repute
Merry, filthy, unstoppably hormonal, "Serbis" feels very much like the sort of movie that happens when no one is minding the store. An oversight committee might have tried to stop the writer Amando Lao and the director Brillante Mendoza from turning a rotting Manila movie palace into a house of comic-melodramatic realism for our bleak economic times. But here we are up to our noses in sunlit squalor.
The financially iffy extended family that operates this place, which specializes in Asian porn, is falling apart - Mom (Gina Pareño, who's terrific) is suing her husband for infidelity, and the verdict is announced today. While she's at court, her put-upon but vibrant daughter Nayda (Jaclyn Jose) manages the theater as well as the young relatives who live in upstairs rooms.
"This is not a whorehouse," she indignantly tells one tryster; what movie house is she working at? People here walk in off the street and pay to see semi-dirty movies ("Frolic in the Water," Barbara Milano in "Bedmates") but know full well they intend to copulate with each other instead. That title means "service," and the sex - gay, straight, and otherwise - looks real. It's rarely comfortable, hot, or free. Nor is it limited to the patrons. When he's not running the projector, Ronald (Kristofer King) is fooling around with either himself or a transsexual. His brother Alan (Coco Martin) makes love to his pregnant girlfriend (Mercedes Cabral). Alan also does erotic oil paintings and has a festering boo-boo on his derrière that plays a recurring role.
Tsai Ming-Liang's 2003 "Goodbye, Dragon Inn" is another Asian film situated in a run-down movie theater. And like Tsai's movies, Mendoza's blends the unseemly and cinematic. But at heart, Tsai is a kind of irreverent classicist - long takes, patiently sentinel-like camerawork, contemplative atmosphere that produce great emotional richness. Mendoza appears to be learning as he goes. He started making movies when he was 45 (he turns 50 next year), and his education appears to have taken place at the school of life, at the video store, and in front of the TV. When Nayda's 5-year-old son asks his grandmother whether Grandpa is going to jail, without missing a beat, she says: "I hope so." That's a sitcom moment that has hilarious melodramatic weight.
Part-telenovela, part outlandish screwball comedy, part soft-porno, but completely without a road map, "Serbis" evokes Pedro Almodóvar, Tennessee Williams, and 1940s and '50s Hollywood but is guided by a prevailing mix of the flagrantly carnal, sincerely emotional, and inarguably gross that are completely his own. If Mendoza is only three-quarters the filmmaker Tsai is, he's twice the unsanitary comedian and has the festering boil, flooded public restrooms, and bleating, coitus-interrupting goat to prove it. Hearts, sores, celluloid: Everything erupts in this movie.