The most frequently cited analog to Brillante Mendoza's Serbis is Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn: They're both elegies to a dilapidated single-screen theater on its last legs. But for as much as the two movies have in common—seats and accommodations in below-code disrepair, patrons cruising the theater's many catacombs for sex, melancholic employees eclipsed by the changing world outside its walls—their differences are more telling. There's no nostalgia to be gleaned from the movies that play in this broken-down Angeles City establishment, which specializes in two-for-one softcore fare. And the studied compositions and deadpan comic tone of Tsai's film couldn't be further from Mendoza's frenetic handheld camera and atmosphere of barely controlled chaos. At its best, Serbis is a vibrant slice of life that establishes this theater as a living organism, nurturing a society of outcasts; it's like Ship Of Fools with blowjobs and boil-lancings.
More than just a movie palace, the theater also serves as home for the family that runs it, with tiny, jury-rigged apartment spaces scattered throughout its four floors. Three generations of the family live in the theater, and the atmosphere has clearly affected the children, including a young woman striking erotic poses in the opening shot, and a projectionist getting head from a tranny hooker. The matriarch, a tough-willed woman played by Gina Pareño, is out of the picture much of the time, wrapped up in a bigamy suit against her husband that's dividing the family in half. In the meantime, her daughter Jacklyn Jose minds the fort, presiding over the business while tending to other matters, like a cousin (Coco Martin) who's trying to dodge his pregnant girlfriend and deal with a pesky boil on his ass. It isn't pleasant—the film was the black sheep of Cannes '08, and it divided critics sharply—but Serbis also has a three-dimensional vividness that makes it come alive. Though Mendoza doesn't care to resolve all of the many subplots he's jugging, the film gives a complete picture of a family, a business, and a city in disarray, and the looming fallout.