Paradise In Service


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Paradise In Service
"Despite the lush colour this is bleak, even heart-breaking."

The Republic of China - not the People's, the one sometimes known as Taiwan, across a narrow strait, across a gulf of social, political, difference. A siege state, one born of civil war. National Service the rule, and the consequences numerous.

Inspired by a work called Make Love, Then War, Paradise In Service is set in Quemoy, a small coastal town home to some 100,000 military personnel - two units in particular, the Sea Dragons, an elite marine commando given to wearing pinkish shorts and bandoliers and little else, and '831', a brothel. Not accidentally included, a part of the army's provision like ammunition or nutrition, state-sanctioned prostitution an uncomfortable and little documented addition to the various crimes and outrages of the Cold War(s).

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The film is gently paced, sumptuously shot. It has rich tones that hark to the Technicolor era, a deliberately filmic palette reference of glamour in sheen and shine, with moments of abstract found beauty, like tracer rounds carving crimson paths towards dangling parachute flares in a romantic walk out underneath an invasion drill.

Romance it also has. Beyond the melodramatic peer bonding of unhappy conscripts, of weary warriors and boyish recruits, there are the women of the 831 - gradually introduced, their stories more rounded, more balanced than one might fear. Central is the coming of age of Lo Pao-Tai (Ethan Juan), but his arc towards maturity is partnered by the languid anguish of Chang Tun-Shan. As a Sergeant Major of the Sea Dragons he is a pistol-packing tough customer, but Jianbin Chen's portrayal conveys the isolation of a man conscripted and carried away to an island not his home, and unable to return. The focus on how these two men came to be involved with 831 raises questions about how the women arrive - we are given some answers, but the broadest strokes are enough - they had as much choice in the matter as the men, but even fewer options. Regina Wan is excellent as Nini. Her relationship with Pao feels properly complicated, while there's plenty of jewelry being given the interactions between the two have the ring of truth.

Despite the lush colour this is bleak, even heart-breaking - direct personal and emotional conflicts are partnered with the family struggle of civil war - a beautifully executed scene pairs the Potemkin-billboard propaganda declarations of each side, the bold colours and speaker-borne entreaties intercut across the water. Making good use of a variety of locations and environments, as varied as barber-shops and bomb-shelters, a day at the sea-side between the tank-traps and supply unit's hell-hole of a barracks, director Doze Niu (who also co-wrote with Li-ting Tseng) has created a film that examines a little-known facet of a wider series of conflicts and shines as it does so.

The haunting evocation of 'mights' and 'might have beens' in family photographs at the end lead to gorgeous credits - at that low technical level Paradise In Service excels, in particular with the subtleties of subtitling, the difficulties Chang has making himself understood with his Northern dialect are made clearer with the addition of (Northern Dialect) to his words. It's a simple thing, but it allows the intent, an audible example of his alienation, to be made clear.

While not a happy story (melancholic and melodrama spring more readily to mind) there are moments of humour, camraderie, even outright laughter, and it's that willingness to play with tone, the variety that shows Paradise in Service's greatest strengths. With small, human, humane stories within a wider context the film manages to shed light on a difficult subject without labouring, and the easy grace with which it explores its setting at 831's "Military Paradise" is indicative of real talent.

Reviewed on: 24 Jun 2015
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War drama set against the backdrop of a military brothel.

Director: Doze Niu

Writer: Doze Niu, Li-ting Tseng

Starring: Ethan Juan, Jianbin Chen, Regina Wan, Ivy Yi-Han Chen, Bo-Chieh Wang, Davy Chan, Daniel Chen, Yu-Hsing Fan, Honduras, Chien-Wei Huang, Mei-Hsiu Lin, Kai Chi Liu, Ke-Li Miao, Ming-Shuai Shih

Year: 2014

Runtime: 133 minutes

Country: China, Taiwan


BIFF 2015
EIFF 2015

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