This house is huge, indeed. Home to the Gonzales clan, sugar barons of Bacolod City, this dwelling, however, should come with a caveat: few of its spaces welcome the outsider. Each room seems a hermetic cocoon, a seemingly padded cell of confinement and isolation. There is an empty and hollow air that hangs in the living room. In its immensity and capaciousness, this communal space evokes the dead interiors of a museum. True enough, we are made to see multifarious curios and artifacts adorning the wide walls and expansive floors. From the same walls are portraits of dead ancestors looking down coldly, inhospitably.
Yet make no mistake about it. The foregoing is no preamble to a traditional family melodrama. Balay Daku, the feature debut of director Jan Philippe Carpio and quite possibly the first regional film ever produced in the country, steers clear of the histrionically draining trappings of this genre to claim a category all its own. With light, bracing humor and mock seriousness, Carpio’s film teases and exposes the excesses of the landed upper class in a smart and artful manner. We inhabit the house most tellingly through the eyes of Stella, a stranger to this surroundings, a woman newly married to Julio, a scion of this family being groomed to take over the family's hacienda. Soon enough, transition into this provincial setting becomes suffocating and filled with such strange tensions for the newcomer that she blurts out, “Are there ghosts in this house?”
In Carpio’s film, the spectres are not of the paranormal kind, but characters ostensibly deranged and trapped by the ennui and isolation of their class and social position. The matriarch, Inday Carmen, rules the home with stern presence, but alone in her inner sanctum, she weeps in her sleep, self-suffocating, self-imprisoned for an indeterminate reason. Her eldest son, Boy, seems just as bedevilled, but his problems are more over-determined. He runs the hacienda almost singlehandedly and yet without the assurance of tenure. In love and romance, his life is just as problematic: he is continually spurned by Isabela, who is younger brother Julio’s jilted lover. What rankles in the mind of this older brother is just that: sibling animosity. And yet there is little, explicit vitriol. Or little sounds like it.
Friction and tension are negotiated by the Gonzaleses through the vocality of language, in particular the Ilonggo tongue. The verbal tussles between Stella and Julio are not too grating on the nerves, but register as lovers’ quarrels, paradoxically romantic and humorous, albeit shading into violence. Class differences melt away between Stella and the housemaid Lore whenever they talk and switch signs. Inday Carmen’s peremptory pronouncements are resonant as much through timbre of voice as the tonalities of language. The orality of voice finds expression, too, in many telephone conversations that pepper the proceedings.
Carpio’s affinity for dialogue and its dynamics finds a correlative in the sweet and dulcet tones of his mother tongue. If Tako, another of the director’s films, demonstrated the lacerating properties of language, Balay Daku enunciates a seemingly more singsong infliction of hurts. Either way, it seems Carpio has cast his lot with the likes of Sang-Soo Hong and John Cassavetes, experts at the snarl and growl of dialogue, and yet not too distant to Rohmer, whose ear for ingenious conversation is just as meticulous.
In this connection, it is worth noting how Balay Daku does bear, among other benchmarks, the brand of the French New Wave. The attention to dialogue can be attributable to Rohmer; the formal experiments (e.g. the elliptical editing) to Godard; the capricious energy and flights of fancy to Rivette. What remains indubitable, however, is how Carpio adroitly merges the influences of cinematic modernism and achieves what he has set out to do: a damning, damaging, but well-sublimated portrait of the rich.
If Balay Daku ends on a conciliatory tone, the image of a fused family, we know enough not to trust it. We know that this could all be an impasse. We still hear the ironic laughter that has started to echo in this house. Maybe a new generation is on its way. Maybe not. The words trail away as we recede from the gates, that house is huge, a shorthand for our disdain.