Paradise in Service, the latest film by highly acclaimed director Doze Niu, premiered in Taiwan on 5th September 2014. Within 3 days, it brought in a gross box office earning of TWD28 million. In the upcoming 51st Golden Horse Awards, the film earned six nominations with Chen Jian-Bin nominated for the Best Supporting Actor, Regina Wan and Ivy Chen both nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Award and three other nominations for Best Art Direction, Best Makeup & Costume Design and Best Sound Effects. In addition to the numerous recognition gained in Taiwan, the film was also selected as the opening film for the 19th Busan International Film Festival and nominated for the top award in this year’s Hawaii International Film Festival. Now, the highly anticipated and commended film is finally set to premiere in Singapore!
Paradise in Service is set in 1969, a year which brings back memories of late American astronaut Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, London’s Beatles farewell concert and China-Taiwan’s cross straits politics. Then, a young soldier, Luo Bao Tai aka Bao (played by Ethan Juan) was deployed to Quemoy, more well-known as Kinmen, for his three-year military service where he struggled with homesickness and his first sexual experience, amid tensed political relations and military conflicts. Kinmen was different from what it is now as a tourist attraction site in Taiwan. Back in the 1960s to 1970s, the island was heavily guarded as militants and civilians alike fought hard to defend their country. In a strange twist of fate, Bao was transferred into a Unit “831” or “Paradise in Service”, which essentially a brothel was established to provide comfort, emotional and/or sexual, towards the militants stationed there with seemingly no escape out. As Sergeant Major Zhang (played by Chen JianBin) bellows, “Once you have entered this door, you will have to treat yourselves as dogs”.
Bao began to forge friendships, including one with Sergeant Major Zhang, and started a relationship with one of the sex workers, Nini (played by Regina Wan). As he struggled to maintain his virginity in the brothel, he was also confronted with homesickness and uncovered many predicaments both militants and sex workers faced – including the unreciprocated relationship between Sergeant Major Zhang and Jiao (played by Ivy Chen), a sex worker who cared more for wealth.
As the story of Bao’s life in Kinmen unfolds in tandem with the rich stories and struggles of his compatriots, what stood out the most were the themes of patriotism, love and emotional struggles yet helplessness towards what they were undergoing on the island. With the film’s background set between 1960s and 1970s, it was part of director Doze Niu’s intention to retrieve this seemingly forgotten past in Taiwan’s history, which documented the many sacrifices the older generation made for the love they had towards their country, and for the younger generations to enjoy the peace they fought so hard to gain. Director Doze Niu also did not forget to include the prickly topic on prostitution which rarely surfaced during historical recollections.
For audiences who enjoyed past films by Director Doze Niu, Ethan Juan and Ivy Chen will not be unfamiliar faces – they also starred in Love (2012). This time, Paradise in Service revolves around Ethan’s role, as we follow his journey from an innocent boy determined to stay in his battalion and keep his virginity for his future wife, to the mature, emotionally resilient militant who blended well into the family of Paradise in Service. In this film, Ethan has once again shown great improvement in acting alongside veteran actor Chen JianBin. Remarkably, Ivy Chen also achieved a breakthrough in bringing life to a brazen sex worker, who was emotionally scarred by her complex background.
While Ethan may be credited as the lead actor, Chen JianBin is indisputably a strong pillar in the drama. Although he and Regina Wan may be relatively less known to Singaporean audience, their acting skills are definitely incontestable. Chen JianBin is notable for his outstanding performance as CaoCao in Three Kingdoms (2010) and Yong Zheng Emperor in The Legend of Zhen Huan (2012). In this film, he has not only successfully portrayed the toughness and patriotic love Sergeant Major Zhang had towards his country, but also the softer and emotional side of him in expressing his love and yearning to return to his mother. The veteran actor’s attempt on Sergeant Major Zhang, in comparison to the previous roles he has played as powerful rulers who tend to suppress most of their emotions, is definitely worth watching for. Similarly, while Regina Wan may not have been the first casting preference by Director Doze Niu, her strong acting presence and determination eventually proved his decision right. Her first icy appearance on screen was short but captivating, but as the film continues, Regina Wan slowly brings out the warmth hidden behind her cold front, drawing a strong feeling of sympathy towards her life experience.
To re-enact scenes in Kinmen during the 1960s, the production team had been meticulous in preparing the props and sets required. While many viewers may take this for granted, the production team deserves compliments for the great attention paid to even to the littlest details – such as the shades of colours chosen. In the movie, all training militants wore red shorts as part of the uniform code, perhaps most prominently on Sergeant Major Zhang. However, we think not many viewers would have noticed that the colour shades of the red shorts vary among the sergeants and the new recruits. This was part of the production team’s efforts to highlight and contrast the time of deployment, as the red colour of the shorts fades to pink with continuous washing over long periods on Kinmen. This is just one of the careful planning and preparation done to enhance the movie experience. Other noticeable set designs include the little food carts and nostalgic streets featured in the movie. As the original street is no longer present on the island, it is admirable of the production team to design every single detail of the street on set. It is no wonder that such efforts were rewarded with nominations for the Best Art Direction and Best Makeup & Costume Design awards in the upcoming Golden Horse Awards. As such, viewers may wish to pay special attention to the art and costume designs which add the finishing touches to the historical background of the film.
All in all, we think Director Doze Niu has successfully conveyed the many themes of patriotism, love and emotional struggles of characters through this beautiful movie; which we believe will prompt audiences to reflect on their emotional struggles and love towards their countries, as well as appreciate better the peace and stability that we enjoy today, made possible only because of the sweat and blood shed by our forefathers.