Alben meng manyaman, boy!

May 15, 2008

Kabalen competes in Cannes Film Festival 08


Morality has two sides—absolute and relative.

The Pineda family operates a run-down movie house in a city in the province which shows dated sexy double-feature films. The family has taken up actual residence in the old building as well. The matriarch Nanay Flor, her daughter Nayda, son-in-law Lando and adopted daughter Jewel take turns manning the ticket booth and the canteen. Her nephews Alan and Ronald are the billboard painter and projectionist respectively.

Nanay Flor had filed a bigamy case against her estranged husband and is attending the court hearing today when, after a number of years, the decision will be finally handed down. It is within this context that the story unfolds. As the rest of the members go about their daily activities, we get a glimpse of how they suffer and deal with each other’s sins and vices--relational, economic or sexual.

Alan, who is financially unprepared for marital responsibility, feels oppressed by his pregnant girlfriend’s demand of marriage. Nayda, who entered marriage out of tradition, is torn between marital fidelity and her ambiguous attraction towards her cousin Ronald. Nanay Flor, who loses the case, feels betrayed not only by the court judge but also by her son who testified in favor of his father.

Preoccupied with their personal demons, the family is unmindful that inside the movie theater, another kind of business is going on between the “serbis” boys (male prostitutes) and the gay patrons.

Screenwriter: Armando Lao
Director: Brillante Ma. Mendoza

OF HOST AND COUNTRY: Brillante Mendoza’s Cinematic Deconstruction of the Philippines

Q: The film seems to have dual themes – one is of course related to the title of the film, SERBIS [SERVICE]. The other relates to the name of the cinema – FAMILY. Could you please explain how these dual themes came about?

A: "SERBIS” may be viewed from several levels. That the film, as you say, has a dual theme, it is intentional. Specifically, “SERBIS” refers to the rent boys, including minors, who ply their trades inside movie houses. As such, the question of morality comes into play, not to mention the legality of the whole proceedings.

In these parts, rules and laws are more often observed in the breaches. But what is morality, or legality for the matter, in a society wallowing in abject poverty, and the struggle for survival stares at you in the face? Indeed, the whole thing boils down to a question of economics.

In the true story from which the film was based upon, the family that owns the movie house resides in the same establishment. It is not coincidental that the movie house or cinema is named “FAMILY.” And the camera catches the story of a family, dysfunctional and extended, as it unfolds to mirror a country in continuous decay.

In a broad sense, “SERBIS” can mean “SERVICE” of any kind: one’s service to one’s family; the family’s service to its members; the cinema owner’s service to their customers. Or the cinema’s service to moviegoers and others; a citizen’s service to society or country; society’s or country’s service to its citizens; men and women’s service to humanity; humanity’s service to man/woman; and so on and so forth…

Q: How much do you think the strong matriarchal household in some ways represents the Philippines?

A: Most of my films are inhabited by strong women. In “SERBIS,” the dominant and domineering matriarch, played by Gina Pareño, reflects the typical Filipino family where women actually reign and hold things together. The family from which I came from is similar in many respects. The Philippines is basically a matriarchal society with men at the forefront, especially in most of our political and economic affairs. But behind almost every family lurks a powerful woman.

The power wielded by our two female presidents (Cory Cojuangco Aquino, 1986-1992, and Gloria Macapagal Aroyo, 2001-2010) demonstrates their strength against all odds. They have weathered many storms, so to speak, including military coup d’etats and other uprisings. And yet they have prevailed.

Q: In the story, the character of Alan (played by Coco Martin) is constantly bothered by a large boil on his buttocks. What does the condition represent?

A: The boil on Alan’s (Coco Martin) buttocks is literally “a pain in the ass.” It causes discomfort as many troubles in life do.

Symbolically, Alan’s boil points to the unexpected – that nagging thing that sometimes one has to deal with no matter how one tries to avoid it. It happens for whatever reason, but it is a part of us that we have to take on or live with or get rid of in time.

The painful swelling causes Alan to limp, and a glimpse into his real character is made obvious. He has impregnated his girlfriend but the weakling in him is not ready to face the responsibility that the situation entails. Still, Alan goes through the motions of the whole charade and mimics what passes for romance by bedding his woman in the confines of his congested and chaotic space one more time.

In the end, after getting rid of his troublesome boil, with a folk bottle-on–buttock ritual, Alan finally decides to abandon everything – his family (relatives), the movie house, his job, his girlfriend and their scheduled engagement. He packs all his belongings in one bag and quietly leaves, walking against the flow of a sea of religious believers in a seemingly funereal procession. Perhaps he is the usual heel who leaves his country in despair or disgust to look for greener pastures, and is hailed as a new “Global Hero” when he returns after a life of virtual servitude in a foreign land?

Q: The camera in this film constantly follows each character as he or she wanders around the 4-story cinema – so much so that we begin to also understand the layout of the place instinctively. Was this intentional?

A: It has become a trademark, in a manner of speaking, in all my films that the camera almost always follows the characters. We saw that in “Masahista” (THE MASSEUR), “Kaleldo” (SUMMER HEAT) and “Manoro” (THE AETA TEACHER).

We also walked the same walk in “Foster Child” (JOHN JOHN) with the characters as they go to their final destination, which is all a day’s journey. And “Tirador” (SLINGSHOT), with its various vignettes intertwining, has opened all roads, taken or not taken, by people from all walks of life on and off-screen.

In SERBIS, the small journeys that the camera travels, trailing the varied characters to their nooks and crannies of the four-storey cinema, are deliberate and integral to the film’s storytelling. The different levels of the cinema transcend its physical layout as they manifest the many facets of the structure as characters. People and layers are viewed and interpreted in accordance to one’s nature, culture, education, experience, vibration or other variables.


Brillante Ma. Mendoza was born in San Fernando, Pampanga, Philippines. He was a fine arts major who studied advertising at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. He started his career as a production designer in feature films, television, theatre and eventually in television advertising. His production design work was featured in acclaimed local films such as TAKAW TUKSO (FLIRTING WITH TEMPTATION, 1986), PRIVATE SHOW (1986), OLONGAPO, THE GREAT AMERICAN DREAM (1987), and many others.

From feature films, Brillante then moved on to television commercial productions, and became one of the most sought-after and in-demand production designers.

From 1990 to 2004, he designed the production for commercials of most major companies such as Asia Brewery, Globe, Jollibee, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble Philippines, PLDT, San Miguel Brewery, Smart and Unilever Philippines. This brought him in close working relationships with politicians and some of the biggest names in the Filipino entertainment industry.

His first feature film MASAHISTA (THE MASSEUR), made in 2005, won a
Golden Leopard award (co-winner) in the video section at the 2005 Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland, as well as the Interfaith Award in 2006 Brisbane Film Festival and the Audience Award in Turin.

His subsequent films won further major international awards. MANORO (THE AETA TEACHER, 2006) won the CinemAvvenir at the Torino Film Festival 2006 and Best Picture and Director awards at the Cinemanila 2006. KALELDO (SUMMER HEAT) won the Netpac Award in Jeonju 2007 and the Best Actress Award in Durban 2007. FOSTER CHILD won the Best Actress award in New Delhi 2007, Special Jury award in Kazakhstan 2007 and the Signis Award in Las Palmas 2008. TIRADOR won the Special Jury award in Marrakech in 2007 and the Caligari Award in Berlin Film Festival 2008. It was also given the Best Film, Director and Netpac awards in the 2008 Singapore International Film Festival.

SERBIS is a co-production of the Philippines and France’s Swift Productions. Itwon script funding from the Asian Cinema Fund of the 2007 Pusan International Film Festiva,l and participated in the 2008 Hong Kong Asian Film Financing
Forum (HAF).



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