Setting as character: The house in ‘Oro Plata Mata’

Pablo A. Tariman
Immortalized in cinema is the Gaston family's ancestral home in Negros Occidental, also the setting of 'Sonata'

HOUSE OF MEMORIES AND CINEMA. The Gaston family ancestral home. Photos: Lore Reyes 

MANILA, Philippines – One first saw this old house in all its silent majesty in Peque Gallaga’s landmark 1982 film, “Oro, Plata, Mata.”

The film director’s recently restored film, which is partly a cinematic ode to the Philippines’ prewar era on the edge of global conflict, is a superb example of setting as character – the character in this case being the Gaston family’s ancestral home in the town of Manapla, Negros Occidental, about an hour’s ride away from the provincial capital of Bacolod.

The house indeed serves to heighten the film’s mood, its brooding sense of loss, melancholy, nostalgia – and perhaps even the spirit of the late great Nick Joaquin, whose text account of the Commonwealth-era’s “Peacetime” starts off the film. Everything else proceeds as if guided by “Guardia de honor” or “May Day Eve” – the ilustrados of Negros in that masterful and elaborate party scene, which perhaps also pays a nod to Renoir and Visconti, and even the small, intimate moments, such as Joel Torre’s initiation into manhood with Fe de los Reyes at the sprawling rooftop of the Gaston home.

One remembers hearing operatic arias in the background in some of “Oro’s” crucial scenes, and it’s also fitting that one of the film’s stars is soprano Fides Cuyugan-Asensio, who does a marvelous turn as the imperious yet vulnerable matriarch in the movie.

Gallaga remains fascinated by the house, which is again a major character in his latest film, “Sonata,” starring Cherie Gil as a diva retired by an illness and finding serenity in her twilight. There’s a breathtaking scene in that movie wherein Cherie renders Dvorak (dubbed by soprano Camille Lopez Molina) at the balcony.

DIVA IN THE BALCONY. Cherie Gil in 'Sonata.'

With two exceptional films already set in this abode, the Gaston ancestral home standing in the middle of its hacienda has become a house of memories, and of cinema.

This writer and a few others were invited to this house some time back by Bishop Guillermo Ma. Gaston, who recently celebrated his 50th year as a priest with a Bacolod concert featuring pianist Ingrid Sala-Santamaria and the Peace Philharmonic Orchestra of Cebu.

Before we were given a tour around the house, we were shown the Chapel of the Cartwheels designed by Bishop Gaston, so called because its interiors are made out of cartwheels and other farming implements. Even the candle holders were made out of mortars and the pestle was turned into a vessel for holy water. From afar, the chapel looked like a salakot.  

Bishop Gaston’s grandfather was a Frenchman, Yves Leopold Germain Gaston, who made Negros Occidental his home at the turn of the 20th century and was a pioneer of Negros Occidental’s much-storied sugar industry.         

Another prominent descendant from the Gastons, besides the bishop, is his cousin, world-acclaimed mezzo soprano Conchita Gaston, who died in The Netherlands in 1984. According to Gallaga, Cherie Gil’s character in “Sonata” was inspired by the great mezzo, who also stayed in this house from time to time.

Stories concerning this house may be deemed more modest, compared with the epic narrative of “Oro Plata Mata.” The place has a poignant significance, of course, to its filmmaker.

“That house was a witness to my going full circle in cinema,” Direk Peque said, noting too that Cherie and also Joel had practically lived there during the “Oro” shoot – and, recently, Chino Jalandoni as well, the child actor in “Sonata” and Joel’s nephew.

THE SETTING AS 'STAR.' A section of the Gaston home as seen through the camera

The house again became a witness to the frenzied schedule of filmmaking. Gallaga and co-director Lore Reyes shot “Sonata” in 8 days. The production was tight, disciplined, and organized.

“Cherie was very brutal about it,” the director said. “She learned to play the piano in that house and got to sing Dvorak’s ‘Song to the Moon’ in that veranda.”

Treated with a hearty lunch by the good bishop, we were regaled with stories about the house in relation to the “Oro” shoot.

As the bishop recalls, the house suddenly acquired its own celebrity fame after “Oro Plata Mata.” But time had passed and the house became quiet again – until “Oro’s” recent restoration and Gallaga’s new film suddenly brought attention once more to the house.

Bishop Gaston remembers that not all his relatives were happy about “Oro Plata Mata,” especially with Joel Torre’s “baptism” at the rooftop which, they felt, “defiled” the house. In hindsight, that scene now draws laughter among the family members, who know, for sure, how their home has otherwise become immortalized in cinema. –

Here’s ABS-CBN’s trailer of the restored “Oro Plata Mata,” starring, among others, Fides Cuyugan-Asensio, Cherie Gil, Joel Torre, and the Gaston family home: