Brilliante Mendoza, 2008
It would seem that Brillante Mendoza is the hot new name in world cinema. The 49-year old Filipino took out the Best Director prize at Cannes in May for his most recent film, Kinatay (2009), and his new film SERBIS (Service) is nothing if not challenging – it almost dares you to fault it. One might be tempted to cite Mendoza’s liberal use of art-film clichés (agitated and prowling hand-held camera work; unsimulated sex; long close-to-the-shoulder travelling shots;) as evidence of a calculated appeal to the art-house and festival circuits, if it wasn’t for the fact that the film overall is so damn good!
There are moments when Mendoza seems to deliberately bait the viewer, as in the opening scene where a naked teenager dries herself by a mirror as the camera voyeuristically scans her body. It turns out to be the point-of-view of someone unseen, and while that might not justify an exploitative excuse for a perv, as we get further into this gritty, thought-provoking film, the opening scene has more to say to (and possibly about) the viewer. There are lots of bodies in Serbis, but they are real, unadorned, and honest, and they speak truthfully about what it means to be human, and not just someone dealing with the heavily Catholicised poverty of the Philippines.
Serbis is a film about disintegration, of retaining some semblance of personal value and sense of purpose when everything around you is falling apart. The acting is exceptional, as lived-in and believable as the setting, which is a rundown movie theatre that is as dominating a presence as any character in the film, and that still operates in Angeles City today, playing the same sort of fare to the same type of patron that convincingly populates the film. Gina Pareño (as Nanay Flor, the aging matriarch who may have been a screen star in her day) and Jaclyn Jose (as Nayda) are especially good as women struggling to hold things together while trying to make sense of life as it steadily trickles away. Their men are pointedly absent or ineffectual, especially Nanay’s philandering husband who casts a huge shadow over the film.
Prior to seeing Serbis on the big screen, I watched a DVD screener of it on TV. It gave me a sense that the film and its director were well worth checking out, but the experience of seeing it in a theatre was something of a shock – a salutary reminder that cinema requires scale. Serbis is exhilarating. Bristling with energy, this messy, noisy, angry yet compassionate film is a clear signal that the grunge poetry of this award-winning director can’t be ignored. Mendoza’s constantly roving camera explores every nook and cranny of the dilapidated theatre in which the film is set (appropriately named ‘The Family’), its flooded toilets and dusty interiors evoking the dank texture of Tsai Ming-liang’s sodden cine-scapes. But the passing likeness to Tsai is superficial. Mendoza has strong Filipino blood in his veins, and there is nothing post-modern or minimalist about his visceral style. Where Tsai’s characters are alienated from their environment, Mendoza’s people are fully alive to their world, even if they have little control over it. The milieu and ennui may be similar to Tsai, but the cinematic expression is all Brillante. It seems that Filipino cinema has a vital new filmmaker in their corner, and we may have a new auteur to keep our eye on. Serbis is not for the prudish, but those with perception and empathy are sure to be rewarded. .
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader