Last week Friday at the 19th Busan International Film Festival, a controversial Taiwanese film wowed audiences. Paradise in Service – a film by Niu Doze – follows the story of a young man taken up into military service. The film’s controversy lies in both the subject matter and the ongoing legal proceedings against the director and his mainland cinematographer Cao Yu, who have been accused of espionage.
To explain the dramas which unfold, a brief history lesson is in order (don’t worry, the film’s opening sequence gives you this, so this isn’t a spoiler). The year is 1969 and our protagonist Pao (Ethan Juan) is deployed to the island of Quemoy for his three-year compulsory conscription service. In the civil war two decades earlier his parents, members of the Republic of China (a democratic party), were forced to flee the mainland to the Taiwanese archipelago, wherein communism spread like a blaze across the Chinese plateau.
Here he joins the most brutal fighting squad of the island – The Sea Dragons. With a short expanse of water between them and the mainland, tensions are high. However when it seems that it can’t get any worse he is placed in charge of a Unit 831 – a state-run brothel. Here he comes into contact with the various women who are within his charge. He becomes their pimp, their confidant and their friend. Even amidst all the sexual tension and lust, he remains true to his self-enforced promise to remain a virgin until marriage.
The inevitable occurs when his friendship with one of the ladies blossoms into full-blown love. We weep with Pao as he fights his own demons and the conflicts of interest he faces. He questions his own promise of celibacy and the promise to his country.
The film not only examines the love-story between Pao and Nini but more importantly the psyches of the soldiers. Chen Jianbin steals the show with his haunting performance as Major Chang Yun-shan – an illiterate northerner who is struggling to learn the Taiwanese dialect. It is his story that highlights the true tragedy of this story. A man forced to fight against the country he once called home. Here, stationed on an island where he feels like an alien, forced to fight the people whose accent seems more familiar, he encounters a personal war. Displaced, disillusioned by propaganda and demonized by the destruction, Chen embodies the Taiwanese struggle.
With tensions rising in Hong Kong, the Ukraine situation and Taiwan’s fight against the mainland still ongoing, the film is extremely topical. And whilst the incessant gunfire across the strait may have ceased, the Taiwanese are still faced with the view of a country they once called home. The Taiwanese may have democracy and autonomy but they are not free. Like a life-raft they bob in the sometimes choppy waters of the Taiwanese strait: adrift, alone and aching with remorse.