19 October 2008


Serbis, a new film from the Philippines, is about a family who runs a soft-porn cinema. It's self-reflexive, beginning with a naked girl (unwittingly) seducing viewers with her repeated phrase "I love you" and ending with a couple trying to negotiate in a sex trade. Of course the whole film is about lust and unfulfilled desire among the cinema's own clientele, but it undoubtedly plays upon the film's philosophical status as a desire-generating machine, turning viewers into voyeurs whose desire remains held in abeyance.

The Pineda family who runs this cinema, strategically and ironically called Family, suffers various plights: the Matriarch Nanay Flor loses her court case against her estranged husband; Alan, one of her nephews, makes a girl pregnant whilst having no wish in getting married; and Flor's daughter Nayda, though married with a son, finds herself in love with Ronald, a relative. One may be right to claim that the family members are struggling to hold themselves together, but one may be wrong to claim that they are giving up hope. What I find refreshing in Serbis is perhaps the fact that life's just like that, with moments of despair and hopelessness, but these are not occasions to give up. Despite all these, Nanay Flor continues to fight the ups and downs of her fate with pride and dignity. Her old age should not blind us to her grace and determination, something that has yet to pass on to the next generation, who are generally portrayed as being subject to uncontrollable desire or resigning themselves to fate.

(On this count, I couldn't help but compare this family to the Buendia in One Hundred Years of Solitude, in which Ursula the matriarch tries to hold everything together.)

I particularly like the fact that throughout the film we are led into the nooks and crannies of the cinema, as if we were led into the labyrinth of desire (if we take this Family cinema metaphorically as the production house of desire) of the Pineda family. Of course, we have Serbis boys who are ready to satisfy the cinema clientele's sexual needs, but we also realise that the lives of the Pineda family themselves are perhaps even more salacious. However, watching their family romances does not create a soap opera feel, but rather something more primitive and sordid, yet universal, like a sexual act itself.

Even though I'm sure a lot of people out there would certainly reject this kind of place, branding it as a place of ill repute, the Family cinema in Serbis is more like a haven for some people who are lost or marginalised by the outside world. We see some touching images of those people who loiter in this unholy ground, yet they are happy chatting away and making friends among themselves.

Perhaps this cinema is like a goat that appears in front of the screen -- it is used as a scapegoat when the authorities need to mete out a punishment. They shut down bars, brothels, and of course soft-porn cinemas like the Family, but they never seem to take enough time to think about the real cause why people frequent this kind of place in the first place. Of course the film does not reveal the root of all the problems, but rather dwells on a temporary solution devised by the marginalised. So temporary and fleeting, yet for some it's beautiful and brutal at the same time.

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