PARADISE IN SERVICE (M18)
134 minutes/Opens tomorrow/**1/2
The story: The film is set on the Taiwanese island of Kinmen from 1969 to 1972, at a time when relations between Taiwan and mainland China are tense. During his military service, Pao (Ethan Juan) is posted to Unit 831, code for an officially sanctioned military brothel. He strikes up a friendship with one of the women there, the beautiful and enigmatic Nini (Regina Wan Qian). Meanwhile, Pao's one-time instructor, Old Chang (Chen Jian-bin), falls for A-chiao's (Ivy Chen) coquettish charms.
After taking to the streets in the gritty gangster flick Monga (2010) and exploring romance in the light-hearted Love (2012), Taiwanese film-maker Doze Niu turns his eye to a neglected and controversial episode in Taiwan's history.
He takes great care in evoking the sights and psyche of the time and the period details feel authentic.
Pao is originally assigned to the Sea Dragon unit and what marks them out as elite is the fact that they go about everywhere in their red training shorts, including trips into a carefully reconstructed town with vintage signboards.
The mood is far from idyllic though as Taiwan and the mainland blast propaganda messages at each other across the narrow strait of water separating the two. At other times, the blasts are more deadly as shelling shatters the island's calm.
It is against this backdrop that the story of Unit 831 unfolds through Pao's eyes after he flunks out of physical training. Making his tale more interesting, the young soldier played by heart-throb Juan has made a vow of chastity for his girlfriend.
Despite that, it is the stories of the characters surrounding him that are more moving. "Demon" instructor Chang is a tragic figure who left China as a prisoner of war and can never return home. He falls for 831's flirty A-chiao but things do not turn out the way he expects.
For his moving and naturalistic performance as Chang, Chen Jian-bin has been nominated for a Golden Horse Award for Best Supporting Actor, one of six nods, including Best Supporting Actress for Regina Wan and Ivy Chen.
It is a pity that Niu does not spend more time on them. As a result, the movie ends up feeling scattered.
Moreover, given that history has silenced the women of Unit 831, this feels like a missed opportunity for them to find their voice.