The image of the house on D. Tuazon Street opens the film "Kisapmata" and continues to be one of the most iconic locations in Philippine cinema. Photo by Cesar Hernando, courtesy of Mike de Leon
Culture Movies

This house birthed a Filipino movie classic

On the occasion of the film’s recent screening in Bologna, Italy, in the company of restored classics such as Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” and Godard’s “Breathless,” we return to the set of Mike de Leon's 'Kisapmata' 
JEROME GOMEZ | Sep 06 2020

Rarely does a location in a local film make such an impact that people still talk about it with curiosity years after the movie had made its rounds. I could come up with just three off the top of my head: the Ojeda mansion in “Oro, Plata, Mata”; the burol with the singular dried tree sticking out of the sand dunes in “Himala”; and the house where “Kisapmata” was shot. 

That house on 143 D. Tuazon Street corner Calamba in Santa Mesa Heights, Quezon City, was the inanimate embodiment of the mercurial Dadong Carandang in the 1981 film about an unspeakable crime committed by a father obsessed with his daughter. The character, essayed by the incomparable Vic Silayan, evoked mystery, loomed over everyone, and without having to do much, inspired great fear among the people around him—much like the house itself.

Today, 38 years after it premiered at the 7th Metro Manila Film Festival, cineastes share information and ask about the house like it’s some unsolved mystery. Where exactly was it located? Who lived there? Whatever happened to it? 

"A person standing in the sala can see the doors of the bedrooms and bathroom just above his head,” was how Nick Joaquin described part of the interior of the house in Zapote Street, a feature that the D. Tuazon house happened to echo. In photo, Charo Santos as Mila, and Charito Solis as her mother Dely Carandang, in a scene from the movie. Photo by Cesar Hernando courtesy of Mike de Leon. 

The film, of course, is based on the 1961 true crime story, “The House on Zapote Street” by Nick Joaquin (writing as Quijano de Manila). In it, the house of the rather ambitious central family is described as belonging to an architectural design popular at the time: “the hoity-toity Philippine split-level suburban style—a half-story perched above the living area, to which it is bound by the long slope of the roof and which it overlooks from the balcony, so that a person standing in the sala can see the doors of the bedrooms and bathroom just above his head.” 

That last part is a significant detail—it reflects the patriarch’s obsession with knowing everything that transpires in his immediate surroundings. It is also the recollection of this detail in Joaquin’s story that convinced the film’s production designer Cesar Hernando—when he stepped inside the house on D. Tuazon Street—that he has found the right setting for Mike de Leon’s next feature. 

The house on D. Tuazon Street was for rent when Hernando first encountered it, which is just as well because he wanted it  completely empty to afford him the freedom to dress it up. According to a statement the production designer left with De Leon before the former passed away last year (perhaps for a possible book on the film), Hernando was primarily on the lookout for a location for the riot sequence in “Batch ‘81” when he chanced upon the two-story residence. Production for “Batch ‘81” was on a halt at that time because of budget problems—so De Leon and his team, Hernando included, started work on a new film under another producer in the interim, which was “Kisapmata.”

Noel (Jay Ilagan) and Mila wait to be allowed in. Photo by Cesar Hernando courtesy of Mike de Leon. 

Hernando found the QC house “eerily similar in structure to the original house in Zapote Street in Makati,” Hernando wrote in the recollection he left with De Leon. “Joaquin described a space in which, if one stood in the sala, you could look up and see the doors of the bedrooms and bathroom above. I thought, this was it!”

In Joaquin’s piece, the Zapote Street house is painted in different shades of pastel, with every third plank sporting a different color. The house Hernando found was in a state more poetic, or at least poetic in the way he described it: “newly painted but could not hide its dilapidated condition.” That the dimensions of the house would allow the “Kisapmata” crew enough space to move around for their shots just convinced Hernando even more that he had found a gem.

“I recall being quite excited when Cesar took Rody [Lacap, cinematographer] and me to view the house that we could turn into a set,” writes the director De Leon via email. By that time, the screenwriter-director already had the first draft of the script (co-written with Clodualdo “Doy” Del Mundo and Raquel Villavicencio). Having locked in a location, this afforded him a clear picture of the set he was to work on, inspiring the writing for the drafts that followed. “It has been my habit to work on succeeding drafts only when we had the locations down pat,” adds the director. 

Watch more in iWantv or TFC.tv

De Leon says he did not get to visit the actual house where the crime took place. “Maybe Cesar did, I don't recall,” he offers. “But the house on D. Tuazon did seem to look or 'feel' almost like what we imagined the Zapote Street house to be. I remember telling Cesar, because the house was empty, ‘mukha ngang may pinatay dito.’” 

With the house under the production’s custody for two months, Hernando started “remodeling” it with art director, Lea Locsin. “There was hardly any budget for acquiring props, but we managed to borrow some things, plus some furniture, from generous friends, for free,” wrote Hernando. “We borrowed antiques like the tokador—the dresser for Charo Santos’s character—some bric-a-brac, icons and other religious articles, a stuffed deer’s head, Mabini paintings (inexpensive artwork), old photos of Charito Solis and Vic Silayan from their LVN days as well as a few of Charo’s as a student.” 

Hernando’s sets are never excessive. Each piece of prop serves a purpose. The barbed wire coiled around the grills of the Carandang gate reminds the viewer this film is also about the authoritarian rule happening outside at the time, not just the one within Mang Dadong’s territory (while the Joaquin piece was set at the dawn of the ‘60s, “Kisapmata” was set in the early 1980s). In evoking the retired policeman’s environs, did it help that Hernando was a son of a policeman? The production designer also took care to incorporate items on his set that serve to communicate the qualities of the Carandangs: “conservative, utilitarian, and middle-class.” 

The second floor of the D. Tuazon house was painted in this greenish-blue color when production designer Hernando found the house. Photo from an ABS-CBN announcement on the recent Bologna screening of "Kisapmata."

The set was ready in three weeks. Hernando had a worm farm shed built, plus a pigsty behind the house, for Dadong’s hobbies. “The decor was entirely Cesar’s and he did not want the house repainted,” recalls De Leon. “It’s greenish-blue color (the second level) seemed very '’Ilocano.' As I said, it was Cesar’s best work among my films.” The critics agreed: Hernando won the Urian Best Production Design honor the following year. The film also won Best Art Direction at the 1981 MMFF. 

The house should hold a lot of memories for the people who worked on the film, even if the team only shot for a short 18 days there—at least from assistant director Ding Achacoso’s estimate. In Charo Santos Concio’s book, My Journey, she shares the account of how a mistake she made on the D. Tuazon set had taught her an important lesson in leadership (aside from being the main actress in the film, she was also its line producer). 

On the day of the shoot for the delicate dinner scene—where Dadong would send shock waves of terror to his family and guests at the table—after De Leon had prepared all the actors involved, Santos-Concio would feel “sick in the stomach” after she discovers she had left her continuity blouse at home, something she needed to wear for the scene to be shot next. She knew it will be a cause of delay. She had no choice but to own up to her mistake and apologize to everyone. De Leon fumed, left the set, and would only show up again four days later. The lesson learned for the first-time line producer, according to Santos-Concio: “when we dare to take on something bigger than what we are used to, we have to be prepared for the bigger mistakes we will make.”

Then and now: the D. Tuazon property is now a parking space next to a ribs and steak restaurant. Bottom photo by Roberto Villarcabral.

Today, the house no longer stands where it used to—that two-story structure on 143 D. Tuazon Street immortalized in De Leon’s fourth completed feature film as director. From a picture online taken in 2019 (according to the photographer), the rusty steel gate coiled with barbed wire in the movie has been replaced by something painted green, and attached to a red cement fence. The property is now a parking space, next to a carwash shop curiously named Epson Service Center, and a steak and ribs restaurant—Original Red Baron, it’s called. “In fairness, three times na akong kumain [sa restaurant],” says a comment below the Facebook photograph. “Masarap.” 

Then and now: Showing what's across the D. Tuazon house. Top photo shows Juan Rodrigo and Jay Ilagan speaking to Aida Carmona who plays the Carandang's househelp. Bottom photo by Roberto Villarcabral.

The property is located across the St. Theresa’s College campus. Unlike the “Kisapmata” house, however, the hospital where Mila escaped from her father’s watch, Sta. Teresita Hospital, still stands.  In fact, if you Google for pictures, it looks just about the same as it did in the film, from the facade at least. That, along with the Manalansan house (the residence of Ruben Rustia’s character, an American era house in Denver Street, Cubao), the bank where Mila works, and Kowloon House where the wedding reception was set, were the only film locations outside the Carandang home. 

As for the owners of the house in D. Tuazon, De Leon says he never met them. “I don't think they cared about us turning the house into a set,” he adds. “Especially when we poured buckets of water down the stairs on our last shooting day. Okay lang daw, according to our production manager, Jerry O’Hara, (brother of Mario).” Whatever happened to the house after the “Kisapmata” crew moved out remains a mystery.