In the 61st edition of the Cannes International Film Festival, Brillante Mendoza's film Serbis was called the "worst competition film in memory." In honor of Direk Brillante's achievements in the world of cinema, PEP pays tribute to his film that thrust Filipino filmmakers in the international limelight.
Serbis' reputation as an international succèssde scandale ironically precedes its mass reception in its home country. Itgenerated derisive responses (most notoriously from Variety) during its screening as competition entry at last year'sedition of the Cannes Film Festival, then reaped generally favorable commentsfrom American film critics after it was picked up for distribution, plus aclutch of awards in a number of festivals closer to home. In certain respectsit managed to avoid the spectacle of utter financial collapse that acontroversial major release of the so-called Second Golden Age, IshmaelBernal's Nunal sa Tubig, sustained,simply by circulating long enough in the international circuit to pique thecuriosity of a number of film marketers.
On the other hand,it missed out entirely (so far, at least) on the fierce critical exchanges thatNunal sa Tubig initiated during itstime among some of the best minds in local culture. Those who weighed in on theearlier release were almost entirely members of the film critics' circle, butall that Serbis can hope for today byway of high-profile commentary will be its performance in the same group'sannual awards ceremony, a dispiriting and unseemly prospect for such an ambitiouspiece. For given the extreme responses that works like Nunal sa Tubig and Serbisfoster, a year's worth of shallow rumination, summed up in the comparativeevaluation process that award-giving confines itself to, will prove inadequateat best, inutile at worst.
The fact that Serbis suggests a comparison with aBernal opus is more than just coincidental. Director Brillante Ma. Mendoza,like mid-period Bernal, has been prolific lately, leans toward contemporarymaterial, and evinces a willingness to try out various genres and formats tothe point where none of his films so far resembles any of his others. But whereBernal occasionally trained his expertise on the (then-still-numerous) membersof the local middle class, Mendoza has consistently kept focus on the country'ssocial Others. More significantly, Bernal opted to innovate in terms ofstorytelling, eventually becoming a still-to-be-recognized world-class masterof the multi-character film narrative, while Mendoza, even this early, isalready arguably the country's most eminent film stylist, designer, andcolorist.
Serbis also raises the issue of how moribund the local film industry actuallyis. Mendoza himself has been able to maintain steady exposure for an impressivestable of talent, and actually provided a highly unlikely lead actress, theluminous but un-star-like Cherry Pie Picache, with opportunities to deliver astring of the most accomplished Filipino performances since the 1980s heyday ofNora Aunor, most memorably in her previous Mendoza project, Foster Child. Serbis itself abounds with a wealth of such intelligent detail—thespic, most obviously, but also cinematographic and sonic (if one allows thatdialog acquires added dimensions when it is nearly overpowered by background"noise").
Where it treads oncontentious territory is its decision to rely on a theorematic approach to itsmaterial. As propounded by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, a theorem isany internal mechanism that enables a film to achieve consummate, even mathematical,rigor, but it also potentially disadvantages the work in question unless aproblematic (defined as a connection with "the outside") can be worked out justas assiduously. The universe that Serbisdepicts dwells on a decrepit film palace, thus providing the rigidly reflexivelogic of a film that mainly shows the showing of films. Almost instantly onecan infer that the Family Theater functions as a metonym for the Philippines asa once-but-no-longer developing country: traces of past wealth and gloriesremain, not just in the labyrinthine passageways of the building, but also inthe still-beautiful though irrevocably damaged faces and bodies of its maincharacters.
The film takesloving—detractors might use the term "perverse"—care in showing how thisfallen institution's denizens manage the terms of their survival, evenoccasionally filching instances of pleasure, mostly carnal in nature, as theopportunities present themselves. The film's refusal to judge its characters'and setting's condition, redolent again of Bernal in Nunal sa Tubig and Himala(also rural-set narratives), seems calculated to exasperate, upset even, thoseeager to welcome a moralistic comeuppance. Bravely enough, the film insists onits reflexive theorem, first highlighting the inevitable queerness of itscharacters' sensibilities as their economic desperation intensifies, theneventually finishing with a sudden celluloid combustion, as if to tell us all, This is as far as any movie can get us toany truth, and how dare we even hope for more. With its narrative openending (where the scriptwriter plays a patron who seeks queer pleasure in thestreets) literally interrupted by an onscreen flare-up, Serbis attempts a formal equivalent of the apocalyptic free-for-allat the similarly open-ended climax in Bernal's masterpiece, Manila by Night.
The Family Theater's"outside" consists of descriptions by the theater-owning matriarch of thefailure of both her movie-house chain and the court case she filed against heradulterous husband, augmented by occasional on-screen forays by some of theother characters into the streets of the town, all of which appear to share thedilapidation and despondency of the film palace. The fact that the said maincharacter's descriptions are more powerful than the actual exteriors that getshown testifies partly to the effectiveness of Gina Pareño's delivery, but alsoimplies that certain questions remain unanswered. In a globalized situation,the majority of business interests struggle or crash so that a privileged fewmay endure. What were these competing entities, how did they engineer the ruinof such magnificent and seemingly infallible structures as the Family (thetheater and its residents), and how well are they doing in comparison? Aglimpse into the so-called other half would have given us a firmer estimate ofthe price that the Family Theater's community has paid for the sake of progresselsewhere.
As it stands,perhaps the only way we have of comprehending the larger phenomenon that Serbis is discursively plugged into isby looking again at its foreign critical reception: it was the Americans whounderstood, and appreciated, what it was all about - namely, the near-completedevastation wrought by the specter of the globalization that they foisted ontheir neocolonial territories. Such a paradoxically enlightened response comingfrom an otherwise oppressive culture would have embarrassed old-schoolnationalists, including the type that Bernal eventually metamorphosed into.Whether Serbis will serve thefunction of elucidating this dismal state of affairs for the current generationof Filipino viewers is something that history will have to play out, wellbeyond the deadline of any forthcoming film awards or festival ceremonies.
(Joel David is a cultural studies professorat Inha University in Incheon, Korea.)