Thursday, August 13, 2015

Review - Paradise in Service

August 13, 2015

Paradise in Service – Taiwan, 2014

Doze Niu’s Paradise in Service is bookended by two historical footnotes. Only one of them is actually necessary, and unfortunately it comes at the end of the film. From that footnote, we learn that from 1951 – 1991, the Taiwanese military ran a brothel, perhaps in the belief that sex would make mandatory military service and the possibilities of war and death easier to bear – a notion that the late Iris Chang disputed in her book The Rape of Nanking. What is also important to know is that the brothel, officially known as Unit 831, was closed after an inquiry into its gross violations of women’s rights. It isn’t hard to see why this information is withheld from viewers until just before the closing credits, for knowing it beforehand would change the way certain early scenes are viewed, rendering some of them tremendously hard to take at face value.

The film is about a young soldier named Pao-Tai Lo (Ethan Juan). Lo has just arrived on the island of Quemoy (also known as Kinmen), which is close enough to Chinese territory for bombs to occasionally land on the beach and for military propaganda blared over loudspeakers to be heard by the island’s residents. In the film’s opening scenes, Lo tries and fails to earn a spot in the military’s elite group known as the Sea Dragons. During an interview with a senior commander, he is grilled about personal matters such as whether he has a girlfriend and if he plans to marry her. He answers in the affirmative, and as a sort of ironic punishment, he is assigned to Unit 831. It’s almost as if his superiors are challenging him to stay both faithful and inexperienced.

Through Lo, we meet the women of Unit 831, and in early scenes, the film does not seem to be true to women in their situation. There is, for example, an amplified joviality to their conversations and exchanges that simply doesn’t gel with what we learn later. They flirt with new officers, smile from head to toe, and seem genuinely not to mind all that their situation demands of them. The only thing that seems to get them down is the occasional rough treatment by a soldier or a rude comment by a particular colleague. This is of course a façade, but even after revealing the women’s backstories, the film keeps it up, showing the women joyfully going shopping and hanging out in hair salons. They don’t even seem to mind that they are handcuffed to prevent them from running away.

In one of the film’s most incredulous storylines, Lo strikes up a friendship with his former commanding officer, Sergeant-Major Chang (Jianbin Chen), who has fallen in love with one of the women at the brothel. There’s also a minor plot point about a friend of Lo’s who is being bullied and abused by his fellow soldiers. He too falls in love with one of the women in the notorious unit. And then there’s Lo himself, who despite his intentions to stay chaste and committed finds himself torn between maintaining his morals and giving in to his attraction to Nini (Regina Wan), another member of the unit. Notice a pattern here?

Hurting the film is the way it falls back on standard themes for Taiwanese films. No character must be truly evil, and so the two women we see at each other’s throat in early scenes must eventually be there for each other in a time of need. The woman who intrigues Lo, like the main love interest in Niu’s 2010 film, Manga, is of course a decent woman put in a terrible position, and this justifies Lo’s interest in her. A more challenging film would have given her a darker side or portrayed as a femme fatale.

Tragedy strikes, as it must, but the film never seems to be breaking new ground. It has nothing to say about the military and its reliance of units of this kind, and it only rarely delves into the women’s pasts. This leaves Lo to shoulder most of the film, and he does not prove to be a terribly interesting character. As written by Niu and Li-ting Tseng, he is always moving one step forward, two steps back. Therefore, just when we think he’s going to do something important, he retreats, and we have to wait for the next revelation to see if he will finally be active instead of passive. One of the only other fully drawn out characters is Chang. He perfectly captures the inner torment of someone in a land he never thought he’d stay in permanently, preparing for a war against a country that he likely still considers his home. It is understandable that he would grasp at happiness if he felt it in reach. However, the film saddles him with one of the worst cases of mother issues that I have seen in some time, and too many scenes are devoted to conversations and flashbacks concerning her. I didn’t necessarily mind these scenes as much as I didn’t believe that a man like Chang would confess so much to a person in Lo’s position.

In the end, Paradise in Service has a good premise, but little in the way of payoff. It fluctuates between extremely involving scenes to ones that put some of the characters and their circumstances at such a distance as to make it difficult to fully empathize with them. The women of Unit 831 all seem to have a story, an injustice or destructive pattern. We learn some of these; I would like to have learned more of them. If the movie proves anything, it is that prostitution and the military are a dangerous combination. This is not a new message, but if anyone needs a reminder of it, the film provides it.

Paradise in Service is never unwatchable, and parts of it are indeed eye-opening. I particularly enjoyed the film’s use of black and white, and I admired the performances of Chen and Wan, who bring both humanity and a degree of joy to the film at key moments. However, by the time the end credits started rolling, I felt less of an emotional punch to the gut as I should have. This is a film that should have been powerful and hard to take. Instead, it settles for being about three possible romances during a very trying time in Taiwan’s history. Again, it’s not the worst choice the film could have made. It just wasn’t a very original one, and as such, the film feels a bit like a missed opportunity. (on Blu-ray in Hong Kong)

3 stars

*Paradise in Service is in Chinese and Taiwanese.

* At the 51st Golden Horse Awards, Jianbin Chen won Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film. Qian Wan picked up Best Supporting Actress.

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