Paradise In Service has far fewer sex scenes than one would expect in a drama set in a military brothel. After all, Taiwanese director Doze Niu never wanted to use sex to sell the movie.
"I don't wish to exploit the comfort women. These women had to sacrifice their bodies and their youth," says the 48-year-old film-maker who was inspired by a newspaper article written by a man who had done his national service at Unit 831, a euphemism for a military brothel.
His movie revolves around the lives of soldiers posted to the military base on the Taiwanese island of Kinmen from 1969 to 1972. A timid rookie soldier, Pao (Ethan Juan), is mentored by sergeant major Old Chang (Chen Jianbin), who left mainland China in the wake of the civil war and is pining for his hometown.
Like Old Chang, Niu's late father was one of the soldiers who left their hometown in China for Taiwan in 1949.
In a recent telephone interview from Taipei, the film-maker says in Mandarin: "I've noticed that no matter how happy my dad was, there was always a hint of sadness. When I got older, I realised he missed his hometown and his relatives back home.
"My father was just one of the millions of soldiers who came to Taiwan. I feel really sad for that generation."
Niu further recalls his father struggling to hold a pen to write letters to relatives back in Beijing even as he battled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the neurological disease which inspired the Ice Bucket Challenge.
"My father would sit at his desk from day to night, just so he could personally write the letters. Back then, there was no open communication between mainland China and Taiwan," he says. "We could only furtively send letters through a friend in Japan, who will pass on the letters to our relatives in Beijing."
Though the movie's premise is a touchy subject given its political sensitivities, Niu feels that it had to be made to record a time in history and to hopefully mend strained relations.
He explains: "Look at the tense cross-strait relations. Look at what's going on between Hong Kong and mainland China.
"We are from the same race, we have the same blood flowing in us and our cultural and economic ties are so closely intertwined. Yet we can't embrace each other whole-heartedly."
He adds: "I feel that our differences and biases exist because we didn't take time to face up to the past and clear up the misunderstandings.
"That's why our wounds have not healed. Through the movie, I hope we can take time to better understand the different mindsets and put our heads together to find a way to build a better future together."
Ironically, Niu experienced those political sensitivities earlier this year when shooting this film. He ran afoul of the law that bans Chinese nationals from entering a naval base in Kaohsiung.
He was accused of using false documents to smuggle a Chinese cinematographer onto the base while scouting for film locations. According to him, the film-makers are still in communication with the authorities on this matter.
Such political controversy is new territory for Niu, whose previous movies were based on safer, box-office-friendly material.
He served up box-office hit brotherhood mobster flick Monga (2010) that made more than NT$200 million (S$8.4 million) and followed up on that with ensemble romantic comedy Love (2012), which earned NT$160 million.
Why not stick to the tried and tested?
Niu, who is single, says: "After I filmed Monga, many asked me to film a sequel. After I was done with Love, many asked me to film another romance flick. But I wanted to challenge myself.
"Life is short and there are so many stories out there to tell. It's not my No. 1 priority to make money. I want to make meaningful movies. I hope to make the world a better place with my movies."
This article was first published on Nov 5, 2014.
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