Explicit fellatio, blocked toilets and a crudely exploded ass-cheek boil form some of the more unsavory elements of 'Service,' Brillante Mendoza's latest opus that revels in shock value.

Explicit fellatio, blocked toilets and a crudely exploded ass-cheek boil form some of the more unsavory elements of “Service,” Brillante Mendoza’s latest opus that revels in shock value. Largely set in a rundown porn cinema called “Family,” whose proprietors share space with male hustlers plying their trade, pic’s rabbit-warren storylines, complete with half-dug trails, match Mendoza’s marked predilection for endlessly following characters walking through spaces. Moving into pseudo-Tsai Ming-liang territory is unlikely to win the prolific helmer further converts, though the competition slot at Cannes ensures “Service” will be tipped for plenty of fest play.

Like their cinema, the Pineda family of Angeles City has seen better days. As the morning unfolds, Nayda (Jaclyn Jose) wanders through the labyrinthine bowels of the establishment —which serves as both living and work space — in search of her mother Flor (Gina Pareno). The matriarch has an appointment at court in a bigamy case against her husband, though the lawsuit is dividing the family.

Nayda’s tramping up and down the staircases allows Mendoza to introduce the entire family, including Nayda’s husband Lando (Julio Diaz), her cousins Alan (Coco Martin) and Ronald (Kristofer King), and sister Jewel (Roxanne Jordan). Latter is first seen naked in an extended sequence where the camera pruriently and excessively explores her nubile frame.

As the day wears on, the cinema fills up with gay prostitutes and their clientele, some even more swish than can be believed , while the Pineda family lurches from one crisis to another. Alan tends his boil while trying to avoid responsibility for his pregnant girlfriend Merly (Mercedes Cabral); Ronald and Nayda are tentatively exploring a vaguely incestuous flirtation; and Flor returns home without the legal separation she needs.

All this — mixed with scenes of cinema patrons getting serviced — may sound vaguely reminiscent of “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” or Jacques Nolot’s “Porn Theater,” but “Service” has none of the elegiac elements of the former nor the yearning for connection of the latter. Presumably Mendoza is looking to use one family’s economic struggle and indifference to the sordidness around them as a metaphor for Filipino society as a whole, though his slice-of-life realism often feels more exploitative than enlightening, unlike his superior “Foster Child.”

With so many characters floating about, there’s little opportunity for real exploration, and the constant influx of patrons and “service providers” breaks up sustainable sympathy until a temporarily broken Flor returns home, her radiant inner dignity ultimately rising above the family’s tribulations. Vet actress Pareno is beautifully cast here, joined by Mendoza regulars such as Jose (memorable in Neal Tan’s “Ataul: For Rent”) and Martin.

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.


The Philippines/France

  • Production: A Centerstage Prods. (the Philippines)/Swift Prods. (France) production, in association with Asian Cinema Fund, Pusan Intl. Film Festival, Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum. (International sales: Fortissimo Films, Amsterdam.) Produced by Ferdinand Lapuz. Executive producer, Didier Costet. Directed by Brillante Mendoza. Screenplay by Armando Lao.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Odyssey Flores; editor, Claire Villa-Real; music, Gian Gianan; production designers, Benjamin Padero, Carlo Tabije; art directors, Harley Alcasid, Deans Habal; costume designer, Hedji Calagui; sound (Dolby), Emmanuel Nolet Clemente; supervising producers, Antonio Del Rosario, J.C. Nigado; associate producer, Renato Esguerra; assistant director, Aurel Ayson; casting, Ed Instrella. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 17, 2008. Running time: 91 MIN. (Tagalog dialogue)
  • With: With: Gina Pareno, Jaclyn Jose, Julio Diaz, Coco Martin, Kristofer King, Dan Alvaro, Mercedes Cabral, Roxanne Jordan.