In Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis, as in real estate, location is everything. Set inside a majestic Art Deco movie house in exquisitely grimy disrepair, with airy, labyrinthine stairwells and damp, dark screening rooms, the film finds surprises around every corner yet preserves the building’s mystery even after 85 exhaustive minutes. Remaining inside but for a few fleeting seconds, Mendoza’s camera closely tracks members of the proprietary Pineda family during a single, typically tumultuous day, as the endlessly fascinating surrounding environment overwhelms and upstages them.
A sidelong approach to prostitution and pornography in Manila, Philippines, Serbis—named after the slang for “service boys” or johns—keeps the Pineda family central while drifting into shadowy propositions and oral exchanges. Young boys cluster along the margins of the vast theater—its giant marquee spells “Family,” ironically invoking simpler times—catcalling a saucy transvestite, dashing into a sugar daddy’s waiting car, pocketing money from older men, and brandishing their erect commodities along the porn-flickered aisles. They are part of the environment, a reality that the Pineda family neither discourages nor actively acknowledges. To do so would make the pronounced physical and moral decay too hard to live down for everyone involved. Street sounds constantly muffle dialogue and dominate the soundtrack, indirectly equating this mutant, survivalist community with the surrounding city. With so little money to go around, there’s no use judging how anyone makes ends meet. Whatever it takes to survive.