Paradise is painfully bleak. From the muted cinematography to the disturbed characters, it is just a bottomless pit of despair and darkness from where practically nobody returns. Yes, this is the stark reality for many drug addicts, and director Liao Shih-han (廖士涵) should be lauded for not sugarcoating it, but one starts to question the point of the movie when there is little redemption to make the characters likeable. But maybe they aren’t meant to be.
This treatment is rather puzzling considering the film is actually based on the inspiring real-life story of Hsu You-sheng (許有勝), a former gangster and drug addict who set up an organic farm and bakery for people with similar pasts as well as troubled youth. Hsu did go through some rough times, having to quit heroin cold turkey because he couldn’t afford treatment. His daughter also started doing drugs, and his farm almost shut down due to financial difficulties. But he eventually powered through.
Photos of Hsu’s still-successful endeavor — with a huge smile on his face alongside his happy family and the people he has helped — appear in the film and greatly contrast with the story. It is understandable that what Liao is trying to portray here as reality isn’t always pretty and people are immensely complicated, as he states that this is not an “inspirational religious movie.”
Photo courtesy of atmovies.com
Paradise does have significant Buddhist overtones, but that is part of Hsu’s treatment program and it is an integral part of the story without being overbearing. But the message overall is unclear, stuck somewhere between trying to tell Hsu’s supposedly heartwarming tale while depicting the horrors of drug addiction to highlighting the depravity of humanity and how salvation is not for everyone. It is ambitious, but it doesn’t all fit together, leaving the audience feeling rather empty.
That said, the acting and production is superb. Former Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese) crooner Jason Wang (王識賢), known for his gangster roles in Monga (艋舺) and Gatao 2 (角頭2), this time takes on a more challenging and complex role as A-hua, the movie’s version of Hsu.
A-hua is a troubled character, usually appearing somber and stern, even though his dedication to the young addicts he houses runs deep. In fact, he’s the soft-hearted one who tries to win them over with encouragement, companionship and care, even when everything is falling apart. The only time he lightens up is when a television station interviews him about his past and his endeavors, which is jarringly interspersed throughout the movie to heighten the despondency of reality. Throw in believable flashbacks of him trying to kick the habit, and it’s a very challenging role that Wang goes above and beyond to deliver.
Malaysian actor Yuan Teng (原騰) also delivers a strong performance in his feature debut, earning him a nomination for Best New Performer in the upcoming Golden Horse Awards. Yuan’s character Shuzai is also highly complex, and is the only troubled youth whose backstory is given some attention to explain his antisocial behavior. He unexpectedly won the role after almost giving up acting, and actually stayed at a farm for juvenile addicts to familiarize himself with the role.
The movie provides every opportunity for Yuan to fully showcase his chops and emotional range, and he excels in making a not especially likeable character as humanly relatable as possible. People end up the way they are for a reason, and Yuan’s character offers the least bit of glimmer amidst the bleakness.
It’s a tale that needs to be told, as it brings more attention to drug addicts who are often shunned by society. Ideally, it would paint them in a better light and earn more sympathy for their troubles by having them all move on to better lives. The problem is that Hsu’s case is rare, and most of them end up back in the cycle of addiction, violence and despair. The movie stays true to that unfortunate truth. But that doesn’t mean that they should be ignored.
DIRECTED BY: Liao Shih-han (廖士涵)
STARRING: Jason Wang (王識賢) as Hua, Yuan Teng (原騰) as Shu
LANGUAGE: Taiwanese and Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 103 Minutes
TAIWAN RELEASE: In theaters
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