By many conventional standards, Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis is amateurish. Its editing is rudimentary, its sound work is rough, its narrative sprawls without much order, and its tone is crude. Despite this, the film crackles with energy. Mendoza, it seems, is a better dramatist than a filmmaker. As his handheld camera spins through the family-run porn theater that Serbis is set in, he finds excitement, conflict, and community everywhere he looks. The movie, though presenting itself as a casually observed day in the life of its characters, ends up creating a convincing portrait of a matriarchal society, in which suffering women must compensate for the shortcomings of the ineffectual men they have the misfortune of falling in love with.
Similar to Mendoza’s The Masseur, which saw its titular character both servicing his clients and coming to terms with his father’s death, Serbis locates the humanity that exists within a world of sexual exploitation. The Filipino culture, or at least the segment of it on display here, has looser sexual mores than ours, and as a result a family can function, even when it feeds itself by operating a den of vice. The stresses of maintaining family values when your customers are transsexual prostitutes is made explicitly clear throughout.
The movie theater that serves as Serbis’ setting is run down and filthy. Mendoza does a superb job of conveying the squalor and cacophony of his homeland. A chaotic mood comes to dominate the film’s events. Fights break out, characters yell, and scenes are randomly interrupted by such things as a goat on the loose or a thief who is being pursued by the police. There aren’t many dull moments in Serbis, even if it largely eschews plot in its efforts to produce a portrait of an entire family. The film seems to confirm Mendoza as a strong talent, reminiscent of the spirit of Altman, even if he lacks that filmmaker’s polish.