Be WARNED. There is a photo in this post that verges on the sexually explicit.
Brilliante Mendoza’s Service is kind of like Goodbye, Dragon Inn meets Porn Theater. The description on Netflix is unfortunate: ‘While the Pineda family matriarch, Nanay Flor (Gina Pareño), brings suit against her bigamist husband, the rest of her brood struggle with their own demons as they operate a run-down porno theater in the Philippines in director Brillante Mendoza’s drama. The goings-on include one son (Coco Martin) dealing with a boil on his butt as another pair of siblings contemplates incest, all amid the seedy sexual shenanigans of the theater’s clientele.’
While this is technically accurate it makes Service sound a lot seedier, exploitive and grotesque than it actually is. What Service is is a sometimes heartfelt, sometimes despondent look at the Pineda family and how the decrepit, oftentimes disgusting theater that they operate, really holds them together.
Unlike the aforementioned reference films, Service is not shot in a particularly formalist way. Mendoza belongs to the handheld, long take, naturalist school. Not unlike the camera favored and popularized by the Dardennes, Mendoza’s frequently follows his characters, allowing the audience to go only where they do. The result is not only this limited viewpoint, but also a pretty energetic frame that brings life to not only the chase scene towards the end of the first act, but also to simple conversation, while all the time stressing the maze-like, impressive structure that houses the narrative.
Mendoza’s film is about sexuality as much as it’s about the faltering economics at play. Though the Netflix description would have us believe that the boil and incest are major obstacles in the script, they actually make up the margin of the film, and function more to showcase the desire that exists equally in the dark safety of the porn films and out in the open of the purveyors (read: no clear separation or favoritism between patrons and owners). This is also a film about sexual frustration, where few desires are fully fulfilled. The space, as with the lust the seeps from every corner, is stifling, and it’s not until Mendoza truly opens things up with a few final wide-shots outside of the theater that we feel able to breathe clean air and get the feeling that progression might be possible.
I’m pretty ignorant of Filipino politics, but I do feel that there is a microcosm at play here. It’s partially because of the aforementioned unwillingness to leave one location, but also because the many people within the family could so closely echo a political structure with their power grabs, orders and innuendos. What’s great about this, is that there’s no clear leader here. The matron of the family is missing for much of the narrative and when she returns, though she clearly wields some power, is happy to just disappear into the background.
The sound design in here is also really great and cluttered – there’s a constant soundtrack coming from outside. Cars, motorcycles, voices, footsteps all crowd for aural space, nearly to the point of discomfort. It’s so unceasing that when there is finally a break it’s extremely noticeable.
This was another difficult one to find screen grabs for, so again, my apologies for the incorrect aspect ratios here. Still, I can make my point.
Here are examples of two wide-shots in the film. The first one is one of the final shots. The space is wide open. It looks like there’s even some distortion in here, as though it’s a true wide-angle lens. This is as free as Mendoza’s film gets.
Here’s an example of what a wide-shot within the theater looks like. It’s still wide, but the composition is flat. There’s no depth and rather than have the negative space be background and to the sides (as in above – freeing), the negative space here is cluttered and looming.
There’s something about the production design of these stills that remind of Lucretia Martel’s films as well: the natural light, the intentionally haphazard placement of props, everything askew though carefully set.