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about the writer

Caroline Abasta is a filmmaker and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


[1] Roland B. Tolentino, Geopolitics of the Visible: Essays on Philippine Film Cultures (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2000), p. 15.

[2] Tolentino, p. 16.

[3] Tolentino, p. 16.

[4] Tolentino, p. 16.

[5] Bryan L. Yeatter, Cinema of the Philippines: A History and Filmography, 1897-2005 (Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co, 2007).

[6] Alexis Tioseco, "Shifting Agendas: The Decay of the Mainstream and Rise of the Independents in the Context of Philippine Cinema," Inter Asia Cultural Studies 8 (2007), p. 300.

[7] Tioseco, "Revolutions Happen Like Refrains in a Song," Criticine (11 Nov 2006).

Mendoza Optical Clinic: Serbis and Cultural Schizophrenia
By Caroline Abasta


Four hundred years in a convent, fifty years in a whorehouse is how the history of the Philippines is often encapsulated. The country's collective national identity straddles both extremes; its Spanish and American colonial influences are still at play around the eye of its ongoing cultural typhoon. Brillante Mendoza's Serbis, the third film from the Philippines to screen at Cannes, explores the nation's identity disorder — a condition which manifests itself in the deterioration of the family, issues around masculinity and femininity, sexuality as capital, the psychological underpinnings of religion and, finally, the cinema as both mirror and creator of identity. From convent to brothel, Mendoza locates history and culture in the movie house — literally and figuratively, as it is the film's primary setting — compressing and distilling the Philippine experience along its cultural timeline.

The film depicts the microcosmic struggles and anxieties of the Piñeda family and the strange, disturbing goings-on in their dilapidated movie house in Angeles City, the once-vibrant site of an American military stronghold. The many members of the Piñeda family traverse the labyrinthine space of their movie house; Mendoza maps out a vague family tree — we are introduced to the matriarch, Nanay Flor, and two or three of her children — but other members of the family come and go without the audience knowing their relation to each other, suggesting both the real-life nature of Filipino families — large and extended — and that relations are irrelevant: families exist in a cycle of dependency. Held together by its matriarch, the Piñeda family is fragmented by the central drama of the story: they await the verdict of a trial in which the mother has sued the father for bigamy. The lawsuit has caused a fissure in the family, with the children siding with their father against the mother who supports and sustains them.

The absent father has long become both a reality in Philippine culture and a recurring theme in Philippine cinema (Lino Brocka's 1976 film Insiang comes to mind), a reality driven by what Roland B. Tolentino describes as "the transnational emplacement of the individual," with families "fragmented by the movement of its members to international workplaces" [1] and women forced to hold down the fort when men go overseas to work. The family, when stripped of its traditional connotation, becomes "a historical unit, an artifact of the past," [2] not — I want to point out — because of the strong presence of the mother, but because of the absence of the father figure.

But Serbis, perhaps more importantly, speaks to the unsustainability of heteronormative marriages in a tenuous world, where survival is paramount. Pregnancies and marriages become trapping devices, with sexuality, or course, being the driving force. Marriages are imposed, not chosen, as Nayda, the eldest daughter, explicitly tells us. This notion is underscored in the scene where she asks a gay, married tenant why he chose to marry a woman; his response leads us to believe that alternative choices are possible. This "postfamily," as Tolentino calls it, [3] is inextricably linked to notions of national space and identity, which are imagined elsewhere. In developing countries, and specifically the Philippines, values are displaced by the pursuit of capital; we learn that the children's disloyalty is driven by their fear of losing their inheritance. Ultimately the disintegration of the family unit, because of diasporic displacement or otherwise, romanticizes the desire for home, reconfiguring the memory of what was left behind.

What remains problematic, however, is the absent male figure who abandons family as a means of escape. At the end of Serbis the cycles of dependency become cycles of influence: Alan, the young son of Nanay Flor, will abandon his pregnant fiancée, just as his father abandoned his family. The scene is particularly poignant as his sister, Nayda, watches him leave, the implication being that she approves of his actions; "don't get trapped like me," her look suggests. Though we are to recognize his sense of agency, we are left questioning the limited — and limiting — choices Mendoza's characters have, and the ways in which they influence masculinity. In one revealing scene Alan and Ronald, two grown men, fight like little boys over a missing t-shirt, giving us a sense of the arrested development happening just below the surface. This is further underscored by the verdict: the father wins the case against the wife he abandoned for another woman, with the judge — male — siding with him. In a system that valorizes bad behavior, the ensuing distortion around masculine conduct becomes understandable. But the verdict, too, functions symbolically, pointing to systems — the Philippine government being the most salient one — marked by open corruption. Symptomatic of developing countries, corruption is, at best, an arrested development stage, though in the case of the Philippines it recalls the Marcos era and the years of graft and injustice that are still in place today. Masculinity, then, and the associated values of accountability, responsibility, in this developing society remain underdeveloped. In Serbis a group of gay men call each other "Mother," the implication being, in some ways, that to call each other "Father" would be diminishing.

Serbis, off the bat, acknowledges female "to-be-looked-at-ness." It opens with a fifteen-year old girl drying her wet body in front of a mirror. As she gazes at herself she repeats, "I love you." In fact each of the three Piñeda women in the course of the film will gaze at herself in the mirror, as though to say "I watch myself as you watch me," in an attempt, I believe, to reclaim the Filipina body. Long subjugated as commodity for the richer economies of Asia and the West, the Filipina is neither victim nor object in Serbis. In fact it is men — gay men — who offer "services" in the darkness of the movie house. Yet the tension between the female characters and problems of female representation is ever-present. Posters, paintings, and photographs of Filipina women — mostly nude — create a tongue-in-cheek backdrop, with Mendoza implying awareness for the need to subvert such images. The young daughter is forbidden to wear a red dress; in fact, the Piñeda women wear nothing but black, undercutting the "to-be-looked-at-ness" that Mendoza establishes in the beginning.

Nanay Flor, though she loses her case, is the hero of the film, in her relentless search for justice; she provides the film's moral backbone, which speaks of the "silent matriarchy" that pervades Philippine culture. Even she doesn't escape the camera's gaze, and we see her old, still supple body as she bathes. From her body Mendoza cuts to a shot of an unclogged drain, which throughout the film has been problematic — symbolic of the clogged culture? The long-held shot of the drain underscores the restorative balance she is capable of providing. At the end of the film she stoically takes her place in the theatre's box office — which she is literally boxed in by — taking charge and preparing herself for another round of battles. Tolentino points out that "the apparent attachment of feminine sexual function to individual identity formation becomes an analogue of national identity formation"; [4] in this context there is much at stake in filmic representations of the Filipina, and Mendoza succeeds in both acknowledging and disrupting this connection.

In the background and just at the edge of the frame are religious iconographies — statues of various saints on a dressing table, religious photos on a bedroom wall, a rosary dangling from a fixture — an inescapable presence in Philippine life, with Catholicism an ambivalent force in Philippine culture. When we first encounter Nanay Flor she is alone in an empty theatre, praying — a visual representation of the cultural "schizophrenia" Bryan L. Yeatter described. [5] The cinema has replaced the church, and she sits in isolation clinging to her rosary; we will later discover the futility of her prayers when she loses her lawsuit. The ambivalence of religion is further played out in two scenes: after she loses her lawsuit she accidentally breaks a statue of a saint, and before she takes her place in the box office — which looks very much like a confessional — the camera zooms in on a silver crucifix she fastens to her neck. Catholicism, Spain's great legacy to the Philippines, provides guidance for a people burdened with postcolonial hardships, and Mendoza both embraces its presence and critiques it. The presence of a goat, a very Christian symbol representing Christ, disrupts the X-rated film being shown, forcing customers out of the theatre; the suggestion here, perhaps too simplistic, is that religion can still be salvational. However, this sentiment is undercut entirely by Alan's escape from his family and from a forced marriage. With duffel bag in hand he walks out of the theatre and into a religious procession taking place on the streets. He walks against the flow of traffic, into the devout crowd, but doesn't get sucked into it; rather he continues to slice through them as the sound of Hail Marys fills the soundtrack. Mendoza recognizes Catholicism as both crutch and savior, as a provider of hope for people in despair, and an illusion.

But cinema — it too an illusion — is what Serbis is about. In 1997, a century after the introduction of cinema to the Philippines, the still vibrant Philippine film industry was churning out 150 feature films a year. In 2008, the year Serbis was released, only 30 films were made, rendering the Piñeda family theatre a symbol for the struggling industry. This is never more apparent than in the fetishistic long-held shots of actual film — celluloid — being rewound, going through a projector, transported by hand. There is nostalgia for the past, for a soon-to-be defunct technology, perhaps for the Golden Age of Philippine cinema. Yet the film, too, is a celebration of the death of film and an exploration of new technology. As Alexis Tioseco points out, in the Philippines, "where once being an independent filmmaker meant hustling for grants and funding in order to buy film stock and pay for developing and editing fees, now a filmmaker need only get hold of a low-budget video camera and an editing-capable PC and he or she is in business." [6] Shot on HD with lightweight cameras, Serbis exemplifies New Philippine Cinema, a movement led by filmmakers Lav Diaz, John Torres, and Raya Martin. Of the group, Mendoza is considered to be the more mainstream; yet in the context of Philippine cinema all have had revolutionary impact. "The new Philippine filmmaker," Tioseco notes, "does not fear experimentation but embraces it, knowing that, as Brakhage declared, film, or perhaps better put, cinema is still something becoming." [7] Mendoza's film is about seeing things anew — his culture, his craft, his people — as is winked at by a sign outside the Piñeda's theatre that reads, "Mendoza Optical Clinic." Like its cinema, the Philippines, too, is still something becoming.

Caroline Abasta





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issue #7 (1.2011)


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