Doze Niu's in advance highly contested “Paradise in Service” is set on the Kinmen archipelago of the 1960s, when antagonism between two sides of the Taiwan Strait categorically defines life on the island.
The smoothly advancing career of Doze Niu (钮承泽), whose Monga (艋舺) was showcased in 2010's Berlinale Panorama, hit a bump during the making of Paradise in Service (军中乐园). He stirred up media uproar for having illegally brought a mainland Chinese cameraman to a navy port of call in Zuoying (左营) in South Taiwan, which as all military areas in Taiwan are off-limits for Mainlanders, during location scouting. Because of this incident Niu lost support from the military and most funding partners; the script also needed adjustment to accommodate the lack of locations and resources. The end result of Paradise in Service thus gives the impression of disproportionally and dangerously leaning against the brothel setting (the “Paradise” part) while only sketchily touching upon life in the military (the “service” part).
Love stories which approximate TV soap opera
I feel that it is a missed opportunity to explore the complex sociopolitical situation through the particular ecosystem surrounding the military base on Kinmen island (A/N: Kinmen, also known as Quemoy, refers to a group of islands administered by Taiwan that is located opposite of the Chinese Mainland city of Xiamen, the closest island lying a mere 2km off the Mainland coast.). Through a naïve conscript's perspective, who is transferred from the elite Sea Dragon force to the “831” unit (which is “Paradise in Service”, the official brothel for soldiers), we see the army's bully culture, prostitutes' disguised past and attempts at happiness, soldiers' illusion of love through sex, and displaced professional soldiers' unresolved homesickness after the Kuomingtang's retreat to Taiwan in 1949. The backdrop has all the potentials of being yet another of Niu's well-studied milieu films infused with nostalgia and vintage mise-en-scène. Or a tribute to a time when the understanding of “enemy” started to become blurred but the reality of separation and displacement is still painfully felt in everyday reality. Yet it is disappointing to see the grand narrative being reduced into some love stories which approximate TV soap opera. Furthermore, the second part of the film overflows with sentimentalism enhanced by close-ups, flashbacks and soundtrack when it comes to unexpressed filial affection. It is on a tour de force of Chen Jian Bin (陈健斌), famous for his role as the emperor in a very successful TV drama Empresses in the Palace (甄环传), that the film hangs.
Mélange of localism and globalism
Yet his eye-opening performance does not conceal the film's overall lack of contextualisation and profundity. This remains a half-way self-exoticised film. At the same time that the film attempts to seduce international festival goers with its seemingly exotic setting, the entire film relies on the sergeant major's oversimplified story to elaborate on the extremely complicated historical consequence. It thus amounts to an opportunistic mélange of localism and globalism; it is not as epic as A City of Sadness (悲情城市) but also not as invigorating as small-budget independent films such as Ice Poison (冰毒).