CinemaOne Review: Ato Bautista's PALITAN, Where Souls Have a Price Tag

Ato Bautista's Palitan (roughly translated as Exchange) opens with a business transaction. Ramiro (Mon Confiado, who gives a performance that carries the film from start to finish), the shrewd owner of an electronics shop, is convincing a client to buy his surveillance cameras. The client, troubled by his wife's brazen infidelity, wants to build proof of her cheating. Ramiro then coolly suggests another one of his wares, a pistol, declaring that the only way for a jealous husband is to kill the cause of jealousy. 

Ramiro is a convincing businessman. He has a distinct way with words, delivering them with the primary objective of making a sale and enjoying the profit. His client, given the freedom of choosing the surveillance camera or the gun, is hooked and ready to let go of his cash for the peace of mind he desires.

Throughout the film, Ramiro is in the process of bartering and bargaining, to convince Nestor (Alex Medina) to give him videos of his wife (Mara Lopez) showering in exchange for the erasure of his debts, or to woo the wife into having sex with him, and later on, loving him back. Nestor is pitiful, a miserable loser who works in Ramiro's shop to supposedly pay off his debts that only keep increasing. Nestor's wife, newly plucked from the province and wasting away in a rundown parlor doing pedicures of horny clients, is the ultimate prize for Ramiro. When Ramiro finally wins the wife, through a marvelous display of gab and cunning, he is rewarded with an indulgently long sex scene, enunciating the near-soulless quality of the newly formed relationship. In the end, he begs to be loved by the confused wife. There is still work to be done, a deal to be closed.

Bautista admittedly pegs Peque Gallaga's Scorpio Nights (1985 as an inspiration for Palitan. He replicates the design of the film, setting his story within the cramped interiors of the electronics shop or Nestor's unkempt apartment. Unfortunately, the setting of Palitan is unconvincing. Unlike the tenement in Scorpio Nights where the audience is able to physically map out the mechanics of the characters' strange sexual affairs and establish the spaces that allow for the possibility of the connections, the setting of Palitan feel like convenient stages that only serve the purpose of approximating claustrophobia. While Gallaga painfully recreates a heightened reality, creating a festering and heat-infested environment where it becomes entirely logical for the characters to be trapped in their sexual longings, Bautista seems satisfied with merely the idea of suffocation, utilizing the most minimum of production design to convey the illusion. Palitan feels too clinical and smart, too removed from the rest of the world. The sweat seems manufactured. The violence becomes only a narrative function. The sex becomes too long and repetitive.

Fortunately, Bautista modifies Gallaga's masterpiece. He intelligently maneuvers the politics of Scorpio Nights, appropriating the role of the voyeur not to the helpless and powerless but to the moneyed and prone to be abusive. While Gallaga's desperate voyeur, a struggling student renting the apartment directly above the home of his target, steals his sexual thrills, Bautista's, the slickly abusive Ramiro, buys his. Despite the variation, the differently situated voyeurs become addicted to the women of their fantasies to the point of falling in love, eventually leading to tragic consequences.

Palitan could be seen as exploitative, especially with its overindulgent bed scenes that seem to overpower what essentially is a thin story. However, the exploitation is an overt part of the milieu Bautista attempts to explore. It is a milieu where everything is traded, judged with whatever commercial value they have. In the absence of love and money, even our souls have a price tag.

(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)
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