Anyone familiar with Taiwanese cinema knows of award-winning director/actor Doze Niu, best known for the 2010 hit gangster-drama “Monga” and 2012 rom-com “Love.” His latest film, coming-of-age drama “Paradise in Service,” tells a beautiful story of a young man who is determined to remain chaste throughout his time in the military service.
Review by ChinLin Pan
Set in Taiwan’s islet Quemoy (also known as Kinmen) in 1969, the film follows 19-year-old kindhearted virgin Lo Pao-Tai (played by Ethan Ruan of “Monga” and “Love”) as he enters the military service. After training briefly with the Sea Dragons unit under Major Chang (played by Jianbin Chen), Pao is assigned to work at a military brothel house called Unit 831. “Welcome to Military Paradise,” a senior tells Pao the first night he gets settled. During his time, he develops friendships with Major Chang and prostitute Nini (played by Regina Wan).
“Paradise in Service” has screened at film festivals around the world in Asia, Europe, and the U.S. The film screened on Saturday, Nov. 14 at the 8th Austin Asian American Film Festival in the Marchesa Theater.
For anyone not familiar with Taiwanese history, here’s a short explanation to understand the setting and circumstances of the film: China and Taiwan have cross-strait tensions. Also, many people from China who currently live in Taiwan long to return to their home, such as Major Chang.
Quemoy is dangerously close to the coast of China, as the base serves as Taiwan’s defense line against China whenever they shoot explosives across the strait. This happens so often in the film, viewers can kind of consider these sound effects as background audio. The soldiers based there are prepared to take action at any moment.
When I realized Ethan Ruan starred in this film, I jumped for joy, as I loved his performances in Doze Niu’s “Monga” and “Love.” Ruan portrayed a believable naive with his innocent facial expressions and body language.
Jianbin Chen performs exceedingly well as a respected military leader with personal issues: he is a mainland Chinese man (who doesn’t understand Taiwanese and asks Pao to translate for him when he pawns a gold watch) who was taken away from his mother as a youngster and wishes to return to her with a wife she will be proud of him for. The scene where he sits by the coast with Pao and shouts “Mom! I miss you!” made me so sad.
Ivy Chen plays one of the prostitutes, Jian, who is popular with clients (including Major Chang). She’s so popular, in fact, they give her jewelry and trinkets. Honestly, I didn’t much care for this character, but by the end of the film, I do feel sympathy for her. Ivy Chen pulls off a good performance of a woman who makes the most of her time at the brothel.
I enjoyed Regina Wan’s performance as prostitute Nini. Her character comes off as anti-social compared to the other prostitutes, but her friendship with Ruan’s Pao makes her open up about her past. One of my favorite scenes is when Wan performs her rendition of the song “River of No Return” and tries to teach Pao.
Niu co-wrote the screenplay with Li-ting Tseng, and together, they wrote a wonderful story intricately woven with subplots that add to Pao’s experiences.
I do wish the prostitutes’ stories were more fleshed out. Besides Nini and Jian, we don’t know why the other women are serving at the military brothel. The others simply exist in the background.
“Paradise in Service,” vivid and romantic in visuals and words, leaves viewers with hope despite the tragedy that ensues. You don’t need to be a fan of Taiwanese cinema, like me, to appreciate this masterpiece of a film.