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The epilogue for the muddled war drama Paradise in Service, the odd choice to open this year’s Busan International Film Festival, doesn’t go all the way but comes close to playing apologist for the forced sexual servitude of thousands of Taiwanese women to the army beginning in the 1950s. Brushing off the officially sanctioned brothels as “a product of their time” is likely only going to pique the hackles of audiences in Asia, where the legacy of the comfort women lingers—particularly in Korea—and overseas where forced prostitution is, ahem, frowned upon. Additionally, the epilogue implies the film that went before it was somehow about these women. It’s not. Paradise in Service is destined for a short life on the festival circuit, if that.
Actor-director Doze Niu rode the Taiwanese renaissance to a fair amount of acclaim with his teen gangster melodrama Monga in 2010 and followed that with the baffling success of the contemporary romantic drama Love in 2012. Love was a hit in Mainland China, which explains why Paradise, set after the ROC and the PRC’s still contentious split, avoids delving deeper into the military brothels’ reason for being beyond their isolated locations on the frontline.
On Kinmen Island in 1969, as close as Taiwan physically gets to China, young draftee Pao (Niu regular Ethan Juan) flunks out of the training for the demanding Sea Dragons (kind of like Navy SEALs) and is assigned to Unit 831 in charge of the “special tea house,” or the Military Paradise. It turns out this paradise is one of many brothels run by the army to keep lonely soldiers company, the women there each for or desperate, unjust or tragic reasons. Among the regular soldiers at the brothel are Pao’s former drill sergeant Chang Yun-shan (Chen Jian Bin), who spends most of the film dressed in hot pink shorts and little else, and the rather bookish Ching Hua-hsing (Wang Po Chieh). Each is in love with one of the prostitutes, Chang with the jaded, scheming (there’s always a scheming one) Jiao (Chen Yi Han) and Ching with Sasa (the one with a heart of gold). Pao himself becomes enamored with Nini (newcomer Wan Qian), and spends most of his career at 831 trying to hold on to his virginity for the girlfriend back home.
If Niu and co-writer/co-editor Tseng Li-Ting had put as much effort into fleshing out the women beyond archetypes, the vaguely romantic elements may not sit so awkwardly on what is a fairly conventional narrative framework. This is Pao’s story, a document of his monumental struggle to remain chaste in a den of iniquity. As it stands the women get about as much detail as prostitutes usually do in movies: they can be the one that gets pregnant, the blustery loudmouth, the maternal elder stateswoman or the one that dies. None of them has much of a life beyond how they relate to the soldiers. For a film most interested in how this impressionable young man will handle all these criminal hussies it takes a while to get where it’s going—the Sea Dragons training is a hilarious homoerotic romp in the aforementioned shorts that flirts with camp and belongs in another film altogether—and doesn’t head there with the kind of flair Niu has displayed in the past. Technically strong, with a retro visual veneer that recalls the late ‘60s, Paradise in Service is a serviceable tragic romance that shouldn’t be as shallow as it is.
Production company: Atom Cinema Co. Ltd., Honto Production
Cast: Ethan Juan, Chen Jian Bin, Wan Qian, Chen Yi Han, Wang Po Chieh, Miao Ke Li
Director: Doze Niu
Screenwriter: Tseng Li-Ting, Doze Niu
Producer: Jimmy Huang, Liu Weijan, Doze Niu
Executive producer: Wang Zheng Lei
Director of photography: Charlie Lam
Production designer: Huang Mei-ching
Editor: Tseng Li-Ting, Doze Niu
Music: Lee Cincin
World sales: Ablaze Image Ltd.
No rating, 134 minutes
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