E1 Entertainment // 2008 // 85 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // March 18th, 2010
It's the family business
At first glance, the box for Service made me wary. The cover art and the description of the film both suggest the kind of overly serious movie that transgresses for the sake of transgression, leaving plot and likability on the doorstep in favor of showing characters doing awful things to themselves and others. In part, Service fit that dubious bill, but it isn't so simple. Underneath the transgression lies a fairly interesting study of a few days in the life of a struggling family.
The Pineros run a family business that isn't so family-friendly. For two generations, they've successfully operated an adult movie house, but its success hasn't come from its screenings. This run-down theater, that the Pineros also call home, has been co-opted by prostitutes who have turned the aisles into a marketplace for their own trade. The owners have their own problems, though, big enough that they stay willfully ignorant about what goes on when the lights go out.
The title of the film, Serbis in Tagalog, translated in English as Service, refers to the single word the hookers use to advertise. As a patron walks through the door, men of all types stand in a row to say it. "Serbis," and if you like what you see, take their hand and find a seat. It seems like a pretty good racket, I suppose, especially when the proprietor doesn't care that it happens. I can't call it clean, but it is safe, which is important too. Most of the prostitutes are faceless, more window dressing than characters. We meet a couple of them, but only in direct relation to the Pineros. It's a lurid setting, sure, but director Brillante Mendoza's Service is really more of an intimate look at the trials of a huge extended family all living under one roof. In that way, it's a nice little story with some heart and a little style. I wasn't wrong about the transgressive aspects, and that's where the film perplexes me, but I'll get to that.
Matriarch Mama Flor (Gina Pareño), an aging entrepreneur trying to have her husband put in prison for bigamy, leads the Pinero family. With her husband, she built this tiny empire that, at its height, had three successful theaters. Since he took off with some floozy, though, they've fallen on hard times and are now down to only one, the ironically named "Family Theater." Now, I don't have a clue what theaters generally look like in the Philippines, but this is a massive, serpentine structure that is almost a character of its own. A very long early take has Mama Flor's eldest daughter Nayda (Jacklyn Jose, Pacquiao: The Movie), who manages the theater, looking for Mama. Her trek takes her up stairs, through hallways, down more stairs, through more halls; until she knocks on a door, where she fails to find Mama, and continues on her search through the maze. Along the walls of these corridors hang film posters of the erotica they show and graffiti by the patrons that show their classy sides. These opening images give us most of the information required to understand the general story without words.
Nayda never finds Mama on this little quest, but this excellent shot introduces us to the family, the setting, and the general debauched mood of the film. Mendoza makes very economical use of the first few minutes of his film, throwing a lot of information our way in an easily digestible form. He establishes plenty about the relationships and situations before the story ever begins to unfold. This is a large family of confusing relation. Some of Nayda's children are older than her sister, but she also has a son of about six. The whole family works in some capacity for the theater, but few of them like it, and they keep themselves occupied in destructive ways. One of Nayda's sons (who, for some reason, has a massive disgusting boil on his butt) has knocked up his girlfriend, forcing two more family members into an already struggling household, and another has clandestine, mean sex with one of the prostitutes. Her little sister is so bored that she wants to learn how to be a hooker herself. On top of it, in Mama Flor's case against her husband, Nayda and her siblings are torn apart by their allegiances to their parents. At this crucial time, everyone is turning against each other.
Mendoza leaves his characters with a glimmer of hope, a thankful way to close out a very dreary film. Mendoza shows the streets of Angeles, Philippines in all of its poverty. The theater is a refuge for many, and is the most fully developed character in the film. The people in the film aren't given quite enough time to develop and we're left with a lot of loose threads. The fault is in the story, though, not in the performances. The cast does an excellent job all around, totally believable if not always likable. There's a lot to appreciate about Service, but between the lack of depth in the story and some distracting, unnecessary content, I can only partially recommend it.
E1's release of Service is okay, but nothing special. The anamorphic transfer is clean and, though there are some tracking errors, it's generally fine. The stereo mix is adequate as well, with clearly audible dialog and no background noise. There are no extras.
What really gets me about Service is that, for all the film wants to flaunt its transgression, it serves absolutely no purpose to the story. The sex is explicit and quite rough; so if you're into that, you'll have a few choice scenes. It hurts the story, though, because it slaps the viewer in the face, as it comes out of nowhere. I suppose that's always the point of this, but it doesn't relate to the film at large and is effectively forgotten afterward. All it gives the audience is the sense that they've seen something they didn't want to. At best, it's an unnecessary distraction.
I like the mood, the story, and the characters in Service just fine. I simply see no value in Mendoza's use of rough sex and bodily fluid. Because it's such a slap in the face, it becomes the most memorable thing about the film, and that's a shame.
With reservation, not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Tagalog)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Official Site