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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

entry arrow1:24 PM | Cannes Critics View 'Serbis' -- Mostly Panned It. Correction: Slaughtered It. Ouch.

[with updates]

Oh. My. God. Is Brillante Mendoza's Serbis this year's The Brown Bunny? (Vincent Gallo's notorious film -- which had Oscar-nominated actress Chloe Sevigny explicitly giving the actor/director a blow job -- was called the worst film ever presented in the Cannes Film Festival.)

Sunday marked the official screening of Mendoza's film, which is in competition for the Palme d'Or in the Cannes Film Festival. The notices are in, and they are largely mixed (which is to say, it was largely ravaged)...

A.O. Scott begins his New York Times article with it, and then calls it a "rambunctious, noisy" film.

Maggie Lee, in the Hollywood Reporter, says the film "contains elements of soap opera from popular Philippine cinema and TV, but without any of the froth and lather. Unspooling at an almost real-time pace, with a narrative that is all foreplay and no conventional climax, the film won't win any commercial converts to the Philippine new wave," but gives great notices to Gina Pareno, "who is a towering presence, who puts fire and tears into her multiple roles -- as a wife clenching the bitterness of abandonment, an aggrieved mother feeling betrayed by her children's divided loyalty to their father and the pillar that holds together the tottering family business."

Howard Feinstein, in Screen Daily, says Mendoza "has taken a giant step in the wrong direction, even if [Masahista]'s numbing stasis has been supplanted by an unpleasant, ADD-like dynamism." He continues: "Serbis has little social value, except for the backdrop of economic hardship that is endemic in the Philippines..." and that "if you are looking for The Last Picture Show, search elsewhere." Ouch. This is a harsh critique, given the fact that Feinstein champions Mendoza's previous films.

Jay Weissberg, in Variety, says that Mendoza's "latest opus that revels in shock value... While employing a far wider range of hues and less jiggly lensing than last year’s Slingshot, pic is mostly composed of handheld shots endlessly following characters as they move from floor to floor in a matter-of-fact voyeurism that can feel overly calculated. Mendoza appears to have jettisoned his early faith in his audience’s intelligence, continually reinforcing signs (“No Loitering,” cheaply lurid soft-core posters) with unnecessary close-ups, and gimmicky final shot adds nothing. Most scenes are practically drowning in noise as the cacophony of the streets continuously invades the cinema’s public and private areas."

Former Premiere.com critic Glenn Kenney, in Some Came Running, writes: "Boy, Angeles City in the Philippines sure is frickin' noisy, at least if the new film from director Brillante Mendoza is to be believed... In the course of a day and early evening in the place, we're treated to such sights as a disgustingly backed-up bathroom, a detailed look at what appears to be a painful but effective treatment for a boil on the butt, and a wild goat chase. What we learn about the family itself, though, is pretty slim. As an environmental experience, Serbis has a peculiar voyeuristic draw, and that noisy soundtrack turns into a drone that has a near-trance effect. The hypnotic tedium of a life lived in underdevelopment and sensory overload and most likely oppressive humidity is, finally, effectively evoked. Beyond that, the viewer is out of luck."

This has always been my main critique of local films. The often relentless barrage of noise. Most Filipino films are quite talky and noisy, and the haphazard editing of some can cause cinematic vertigo. An older friend once told me that perhaps this is a perfect reflection of our culture, and I agree -- to a point. Because it is perfectly possible to have a "noisy" society, and create quiet elegance in art. Case in point: Scent of Green Papaya. The Vietnam War looms in the background of this film by Anh Hung Tran, but by God, it is such a quiet, beautiful film.

Le Monde's Thomas Sotinel gives it one-star, and writes: "C'est chaotique, à l'image des stratégies de survie de cette famille au bord de l'implosion. Alors que la grand-mère tente d'obtenir l'incarcération de son mari pour adultère, elle s'agace de la nature de l'activité qu'elle abrite dans son cinéma, sans faire le moindre effort pour y mettre un terme. Car, dans ce pays catholique en diable, le sexe est le seul commerce qui permette de survivre." Ouch.

And this, from Reuter's Kurt Honeycutt, the unkindest cut of all: "Finally, what would a Cannes Competition be without a head-scratcher? So far that would be Brillante Mendoza's Service from the Philippines. A 90-minute wallow in frighteningly bad sound and camerawork, nonacting, relentless degradation and sex, the film seems to be here for one reason -- to give the festival its annual jolt of graphic oral sex." Ouch!

There's an updated chart somewhere that tracks the critical reaction to all the films in competition, and so far, Serbis gets the lowest score.

What can Filipino cinema learn from this? Enough sex! Enough exotification of our poverty! Buy better sound equipment! Hire editors who know how to edit! And learn how to tell a story cinematically!


Finally, one good review of Serbis! Or, at least it doesn't slaughter it. Here's Le Journal du Dimanche's Yannick Vely: "Pour son caractère cru et sans tabou, avec de nombreuses scènes de sexe, le film suscitera peut-être le scandale sur la Croisette. Il serait dommage, pourtant, de passer à côté de ce portrait de famille, réalisé en douze jours par un surdoué de l'écriture cinématographique. Comme Arnaud Desplechin dans Un Conte de Noël, l'auteur de John John, présenté à la Quinzaine des Réalisateurs la saison dernière, impressionne par sa faculté à tisser immédiatement des liens entre les différents personnages, à saisir les non-dits, à donner corps aux récits entrecroisés qui circulent sans cesse à l'écran, comme le petit enfant à bicyclette. Brillante Mendoza capte avec tendresse ce petit univers en mouvement perpétuel, ces petits services rendues, qu'ils soient sexuels ou autres. L'image est choc mais le propos jamais glauque, jamais sensationnel dans le mauvais sens du terme, bien au contraire. "Family", le nom symbolique du cinéma pornographique, est un havre de paix pour âmes en peine, une halte nécessaire pour reprendre son souffle avant d'affronter la rue."

Roughly translated [and truncated -- my French not very good]: "Because of its rawness and without taboo (it has many sex scenes), the film will spark perhaps a scandal on the Croisette... It would be unfortunate, however, to ignore this filmed portrait of a family, which was done in twelve days by a gifted writer/director... who has an ability to immediately forge links between various characters, to seize the unspoken, to give substance to the intersecting stories that circulate constantly on the screen, like the small child on a bicycle... Brillante Mendoza lovingly captures this small universe in perpetual motion, these small services rendered, whether sexual or otherwise... It is never sensational in the wrong sense; quite the contrary. 'Family,' the symbolic name of the porno film theater, is a haven of peace for souls in pain, who pause to breathe before facing the street."

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