'Paradise in Service' is Doze Niu's most personal film

By Tay Yek KeakMovies - 14 November 2014 12:38 PM | Updated 17 November 2014

'Paradise in Service' is Doze Niu's most personal film

Doze Niu Chen-Zer does not make obvious, predictable or officially approved films.

The first movie the Taiwanese filmmaker directed, ‘What On Earth Have I Done Wrong?!’ (2007), was about a director (played by Niu himself) trying to raise money to make a mockumentary film.  

His second, which marked his first collaboration with favourite Taiwanese actor Ethan Juan, focused on gangsters fighting for turf in the 1980s in a historic district in Taipei called ‘Monga’ (2010).

‘Love’ (2012), his third feature, looked at the relationships among various diverse people – played by Juan, Shu Qi, Mark Chao, Zhao Wei, and Niu again – with their love lives brewing in different directions.     

The director on location filming

‘Paradise In Service’, though, is his most personal film yet.

At the age of 48, director Niu, having started his career as an actor at just age nine – he was nominated at 17 for Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Horse Awards in 1983 for the seminal movie, ‘Growing Up’ – is ready to pay homage to his country’s history, heritage and its long-suffering displaced older generation, including his own late father.

In 1949, Niu’s father left his family in Beijing during the Chinese Civil War for Taiwan with the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) and was never able to make it back to his beloved homeland. 

At a terribly young age, Niu’s dad was struck by the rare degenerative disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), and was bedridden, unable to speak, for more than 20 years. 

Despite his condition, he wrote letters painstakingly to his family in Beijing, which were sent via a friend in Japan. Niu’s father never let go of his family in China and the memories he held.     

‘Paradise In Service’ is not a heroic or patriotic war film.    

It is the story of lives badly affected and families split painfully apart following the separation of China and Taiwan.

At its centre is the growing-up point-of-view of a young Taiwanese conscript Pao-tai (Juan), who serves his mandatory military service from 1969 to 1972 on the remote island of Quemoy (also known as Kinmen).

The tense, heavily militarised island lies so close to the Communist mainland that it was bombarded regularly by propaganda leaflets ahead of a war, which could have erupted at any time.

Initially posted to an elite unit called the Sea Dragons, Bao is later transferred to a seedier, less conventional duty in guarding a group of prostitutes in Unit 831, the codename for government-sanctioned brothels on the frontline (these brothels existed in outlying islands at the time).  

Throughout his stay there, the young soldier bonds with a tough but lonely old veteran (played by Chinese actor Chen Jianbin) and a prostitute (Regina Wan Qian) to whom he grows close.

Director Niu, who served his military service in an army unit for artistes, tells inSing in a phone interview from Taiwan how he made ‘Paradise In Service’.  

This film is very close to your heart. How did ‘Paradise In Service’ first start for you?

It began when I came across an article in 2004 written by a veteran of those tense times in the 1950s and '60s between Taiwan and China. The article traced back to the time when the writer was serving the army like Pao (Ethan Ruan) and was transferred to Unit 831, the army brothel on Quemoy Island. Men of that time knew Unit 831 as a mysterious place of temptation and lust.  Although deemed unclean, it was a legendary place which captured one’s imagination.  Like a forbidden door, that article was a peek into a different time and way of life. 

I realised that the relationship between the veteran and the girls was not as I had expected. It was neither dirty nor dishonourable. Both the soldier and the prostitutes were merely learning how to deal with life and the hardships they were facing in their own ways to survive. That piqued my interest as a filmmaker.

We understand your late father had something to do with the development of the story.

Yes. My father left his family in Beijing for Taiwan in 1949 following the defeat of the Kuomintang. He never returned home to China and for over 20 years, he was bedridden with ALS. He was in pain but he never let go of his family in China.

On the day of his passing, for the first time in my life, I tried putting myself in his position. As a young man, what was his life like in Beijing? What was his relationship with his beloved mother whom he missed so dearly every day? How did he end up on the train and the ship which took him to permanent exile in Taiwan? From this extreme sadness came the character of the lonely and bitter displaced old soldier, Old Zhang (Chen Jianbin), who longed to go home to the mainland to see his mother.           

You felt a duty to tell the story of the many people who left China unwillingly during the Chinese Civil War and fled to Taiwan during those unhappy years?

I felt I must do something for them. When I started preparing for the film, I went to Quemoy Island which is very near to China and felt the most impact. After visiting the place and listening to so many poignant personal tales, I felt even stronger the feeling that the 100,000 soldiers stationed there in the 1950s and '60s were preparing for a war that could never happen. The old soldiers and the generations of young men they trained, together with the people living on the island, became imprisoned in that place due to this unhappy political event.

Now, maybe about 6,000 to 7,000 troops remain. The tension between China and Taiwan has been reduced drastically. Many old military bases have been abandoned. It’s absurd how so many people suffered so much for it. For what? Like one young conscript says in the film, “Why do we have to serve? Why don’t we have a choice?”. These are ordinary human beings caught up in a collective ill fate which is none of their doing. This is an anti-war film.

What were the difficulties in making ‘Paradise In Service’ since it isn’t a war movie with plenty of heroics?

Well, we had to do everything on our own. To capture that highly militarised era in Quemoy at the time, there were scenes, events and circumstances that one could not avoid filming. That was very difficult. From rifles to tanks to a war ship, etc, these were things we had to reproduce.  Worse, we were focussing on a sensitive part of Taiwanese history which wasn’t politically correct or commercially attractive. 

Many people thought I would make something light-hearted like Singapore’s ‘Ah Boys To Men’ or Taiwan’s ‘Yes Sir’ comedies. But I wanted to make something true in real life. A politically correct Taiwanese military film will be like ‘Warriors Of The Rainbow: Seediq Bale’ (2011) which was a patriotic movie about a heroic indigenous uprising against Japanese occupiers in 1930.  My film, however, featured prostitutes. There are people who don’t understand this. There are people who have doubts or criticisms. 

Did the Taiwanese government support this film?

No. The cultural representative was courteous and kind and our Minister Of Culture was supportive because she once wrote a book about the Chinese Civil War. She liked my film. It’s part of our history. But ‘Paradise In Service’ isn’t a mainstream or politically correct project, unlike 'Seediq Bale'. That movie held its premiere in front of the premises of the president. Every important official was there, including even the opposition. The entire nation celebrated the movie as a must-see. My film didn’t enjoy such support.

But that’s all right. We cannot always do things which people think is correct. We shouldn’t try too hard to go mainstream to please the market. We must still listen to the voice in our heart.  With good intentions, of course.

Ethan has an explicit nude and sex scene with lead actress Regina Wan Qian. Was that awkward to film?

Initially, they were both nervous because this was something which was more than what they have done previously. However, we all felt very involved with the story. They believed that they were doing something meaningful and they trusted me.

I am an actor who became a director. I understood their concerns and I gave them a safe and comfortable environment to act. While filming that scene, both actors were already familiar with each other. They trusted each other. Sure, there was nervousness. But it was part and parcel of the characters they were playing. They should be nervous being so intimate. Filming turned out to be very smooth.

When Hollywood made ‘Saving Private Ryan’, they sent the cast, including Tom Hanks, to basic boot camp to make them act like real soldiers. Most Taiwanese men need to serve in the military. However, you had actors from China too, such as Chen who played Old Zhang. Did you send your cast, especially those who didn’t serve army, for training?

Yes. Everybody – male and female – trained in some form or other. I had some new actors. I sent them to basic acting classes. The actresses went for history lessons to learn more about the 1950s to early 1970s. They had their own homework, such as interviewing sex workers. The male actors playing the elite Sea Dragon commandos were sent for quite long military-style training. Ethan trained under real Sea Dragons for about two months. He’s bound to have many exciting tales of blood, sweat and tears.      

‘Paradise In Service’ features prostitutes. How do you think female audiences will react to the film?

In a positive way. Female viewers in Taiwan who have seen it were moved. Youngsters might find it a bit slow. But those who liked the film appreciated my effort in sharing this slice of history with them and for letting them understand their parents and grandparents better.  Look, there are people who liked the movie and people who didn’t. There were contentious debates. But to my surprise, no one was angry. I was expecting some backlash for the focus on the prostitutes but there was no protest. Perhaps it was because I told their stories in a respectful way.

Do you hope to show 'Paradise In Service' in mainland China?

I really hope so. I’m cautiously optimistic. Mainly because this film shows a side that’s different from what audiences in China know or have seen before. Yes, this subject is sensitive and it might take a long time to understand. But I think the movie is a story about us – Taiwan and China, both kindred people. I’m talking about the connection between us. We need to face it so that we can heal our wounds, put the past behind us, decide what’s good for our future, and move on together. 

‘Paradise In Service’ is a Taiwan, China and Hong Kong joint production. Through art, a lot of wounds can be healed. A lot of bias can be obliterated. I look forward to this most earnestly. 

'Paradise in Service' is now showing in cinemas

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Paradise In Service
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