Sunday, May 17, 2015

SIFF ’15: Paradise in Service

Unit 831 was sort of like the USO, except they managed a brothel to keep the early 1960s Nationalist Chinese Military’s morale high. There were not comfort women. It was more complicated than that. A young enlisted man will learn just how complicated in Doze Niu Chen-zer’s Paradise in Service (trailer here), co-produced by none other than Hou Hsiao-hsien, which screens during the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival.

Lo Pao-tai has the physique to be a frogman, but he literally cannot swim to save his life. Washing out of the Sea Dragons training program, he is transferred to serve out his remaining mandatory term of enlistment at a local Unit 831 brothel. His first day will be quite an eye-opening experience for the naïve young man. However, in his new assignment, he will periodically meet and greet some of his former comrades, including the grizzled Sergeant-Major Chang Yung-shen. In fact, he will see quite a bit of the veteran sergeant, since he has fallen for Chiao, a.k.a. Number 8, the top girl at Lo’s “teahouse.”

Unfortunately, Chiao is a bit of a game-player, whereas Ni-ni is the exact opposite. She came to work at the teahouse under rather tragic circumstances. She and Lo soon become friends, but not yet with benefits. Their courtship will be a slow business that often must be deferred by more pressing Unit 831 business.

Yes, there is probably no better place to come of age in a hurry than a military cat house. While Niu makes it plenty clear just what goes on there, the vibe of the film is strangely innocent. In a way, its concerns are not so very different than Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues, but can you imagine how delighted his sex-obsessed Eugene Jerome analog would have been with this sort of service detail?

The time capsule-like period details of Paradise are often quite eye-opening. The idea of armed conflict with the Communists was hardly idle speculation for the military stationed on Quemoy, where each side constantly blasted propaganda through loud speakers at each other. There is definitely a sense that both sides are in a not so “Cold” War staring contest.

While the setting of a military brothel could easily lend itself to comedy (“no time for procurers”), Niu plays it achingly straight, often diving into pure melodrama. However, the cast sells it like an ensemble of champions. Ethan Ruan has never been better as the innocent Lo, developing some deeply felt chemistry with Regina Wan Qian’s Ni-ni. She is also terrifically sensitive yet restrained as the inherently respectable prostitute. Like a Taiwanese Tommy Lee Jones, Chen Jianbin rock solidly anchors the film as the gruff but vulnerable sergeant, while Miao Ke-li steals scene after scene as Cher, the older, brassier working woman.

Although the Taiwanese military is not exactly eager to talk about the now defunct Unit 831, Paradise never feels like an expose. In fact, there is a strange feeling of camaraderie that develops between the women and the staff. Whether you find it credible or not, that vibe really distinguishes the picture. When it finishes, you feel like you were briefly stationed at Quemoy, which is something. Recommended for fans of the big name Taiwanese and Mainland cast (who do not disappoint), Paradise in Service screens Monday (5/18), and Tuesday (5/26), as part of this year’s SIFF.