Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Paradise in Service (軍中樂園) (2014)

Asians are politically incorrect. Proof: The comfort women issue gets a Wonder Years treatment in Paradise in Service!

Earlier this year, the new boss of the NHK got into trouble when he claimed that Japan was unfairly singled out for the issue of comfort women by Korea, China, and Taiwan when in fact conscription of women into military brothels was a widespread practice in both major theatres of the Second World War.

The beleaguered NHK boss should have added that free market, state, and even military sanctioned prostitution all predate the Great War and have continued even to this day. He could even have pointed out that ever since Generalissimo Chiang landed on Kinmen Rock, the Taiwanese military conscripted aboriginal girls and female prisoners into its brothels to fulfil and regulate the sexual urges of a conscripted civilian military. Informally, they were called “special teahouses”. Officially, they were run under Unit 831. Apparently it was all par for the course and no one blinked an eye at the practice.

Doze Niu’s Paradise in Practice takes on this thorny, even horrifying topic and gives it the Wonder Years treatment. 30-something Ethan Juan plays the fresh-faced innocent barely out of high school, a military conscript who flunks out of the Taiwan marines and gets reassigned to one of these military brothels. There, he works as a cross between a prison guard for the sex workers and a clerk who sells tickets for their clients. And over the course of the film, he gets to grow up, make friends with both the whore with a heart of gold and a tragic backstory and the barking drill sergeant from Hunan with a heart of gold and a tragic backstory that is often played for laughs. In the permanently liminal space, all 3 can never go back, both literally and metaphorically.

The setting may be a military brothel, the biggest outrage may be that the workers were transferred from the criminal system to expedite their sentences—but the horror is distanced, tamed, and normalised via the protagonist’s mostly comic rite of passage narrative. The slice of life approach allows the existential horror to be downplayed in favour of the film’s comic and sentimental elements. Doze Niu seems to favour the sentimental even though he’s a far more sophisticated comic writer and director. And when the horror does surface, it is coded more as melodrama than the abyss staring back at you.

I wouldn’t say that Paradise in Service has taken the wrong approach to talk about the important topic it raises. It’s an interesting and entertaining film on its own but perhaps this is as far as Asian society can get talking about non-Japanese military prostitution, at this point in time.

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