Busan 2014 Review: PARADISE IN SERVICE, A Classical Tearjerker
Director Doze Chen-Zer Niu presents a rather different slice of Taiwan's history. In 1969, Kinmen, the nationalist party, is still in conflict with the mainland of China. With heavy hearts, most troops feel they will never see their homes again, literally fighting coast to coast. New recruit Pao is one such young and scared man who has a girl back home. He made a promise to her that he intends to keep. He is transferred to an elite unit focusing on naval reconnaissance, but as his stern commanding officer soon learns, he cannot swim.
He is promptly transferred to the infamous "831" unit, also known as "Paradise in Service." The soldiers are serviced by comfort women and Pao works through the administration side of things; never once touching the girls. Pao comes to cherish the prostitute Nini, who came to "831" under suspicious circumstances that are eventually revealed.
Aside from Pao, the film also focuses on the smaller stories of other soldiers and prostitutes, but the majority of it is seen through his rather naïve eyes.
The film has streaks of brutality reminiscent of Niu's previous gangster picture Monga, but it is mostly melodrama that is used to recall this turgid tale. The country is torn apart by war, and this uncanny place where pleasure supersedes oncoming fear and death is wonderfully explored by Niu. Each woman's room is a powerful mise en scene, revealing their personas and characters. Although they are used for sexual gratification, the film treats them as equally as important as their soldier counter-parts. In this sense, it explores the power dynamics in play in "831."
Men desperately declare love and marriage while others vie to have every woman available. Larger than life characters from both sides create moments of humour and pathos that keep the film on its toes. The subdued and squeaky clean Pao is eventually impacted by them, as well as some unfortunate decisions and painful truths that often lead to heartbreaking moments.
The cinematography is very classical, much to the film's benefit. It highlights the period elements of Taiwan during this time and a powerful feeling of melancholy that travels with Pao during his stay at "831". The score has some wonderful original songs that tug at the heart strings, adding to the clearly melodramatic events that take place.
Despite the obvious mechanisms of drama, the film is often tear-jerking. It creates the right mood and responses and reflects the tragic period well. It is perhaps in the film's final moments that it falters considerably.
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The film wastes its build-up by utilising a contrived flash-forward before the credits that ring so hollow and obtuse they almost ruin what has come before it.
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Additionally, the film does not really explore the impact or phenomenon of the comfort women, opting instead to simply present a narrative based around them. This may irk some, but the narrative is engaging enough and the contained story barely allows for such a level of analysis.
Recalling simpler films of Taiwan's 1980's wave, Paradise in Service is more than a coming-of-age tale. It is wonderfully balanced and wholly enjoyable thanks to its memorable characters; just be sure to bring a tissue.
Paradise in Service is the opening night film for the 2014 Busan International Film Festival.