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Title: Jun zhong le yuan (2014)

6,7 /10

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The achingly beautiful film is lushly produced, and features a hauntingly heartfelt performance by Chen Jian Bin

For playing a gangster with a heart of gold in Monga (2010), 31 year old Taiwanese good looker Ethan Ruan took home the Best Leading Actor prize at the 47th Golden Horse Awards. While we do not have not have much qualms about his acting, we thought such accolades were meant for more veteran actors. The Taichungborn actor rose to fame in the Taiwanese drama Fated To Love You, and has a steady fanbase made up of, yes, nothing surprising here – teenage girls.

From a business point of view, it makes perfect sense to cast him as an army conscript from southern Taiwanwho's selected shortly after arriving on Kinmen to be a part of the elite Sea Dragons amphibious force by a tough sergeant major. Alas, our protagonist cannot swim and is promptly transferred to the infamous "831" unit, also known as "Paradisein Service." There, soldiers are serviced by comfort women and our leading man works through the administration side of things, never once touching the girls. But how long does that last, you ask?

Appearing in his third film directed by Doze Niu (after 2010's Monga and 2012's Love), Ruan delivers a decent performance here. We empathise with him as his friendship with one of the ladies blossoms into full-blown love. We feel for him as he fights his own demons and the conflicts of interest he faces. He questions his own promise of celibacy and the promise to his country.

But the character who tugs at our heartstrings in this Golden Horse nominated film

is Chen Jian Bin's strict sergeant major. His haunting performance as an illiterate northerner who is struggling to learn the Taiwanese dialect is almost heartbreaking, as the fierce character often intimidates soldiers with his tough front. It is his story that highlights the true tragedy of the screenplay. A man who is forced to fight against the country he once called home is stationed on an island where he feels like an alien, forced to fight the people whose accent seems more familiar, he encounters a personal war. Displaced, disillusioned by propaganda, demonised by the destruction and a pending tragedy with a prostitute, Chen's wonderful performance embodies the Taiwanese struggle (for those of you who know Taiwan's history well).

The film has streaks of brutality in Niu's previous gangster picture Monga, but the 134 minute movie is anchored by a large dose of melodrama. Men desperately declare love and marriage while others vie to have every woman available. Larger than life characters from both sides create moments of humour and pathos to get your attention. There could have been more effort put into fleshing out the supporting characters, including a bespectacled conscript (Wang Po Chieh) subjected to bullying by his fellow soldiers, a prostitute (Regina Wan Qian) who is selling her body to reduce prison time and an alluring woman (Iven Chen) who dreams of a better future while seducing men with empty promises.

Technically polished, the film is a joy to look at. It benefits from cinematographer Charlie Lam's beautiful lensing and auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien who takes on the role of editing director and co producer. At the end of the two odd hours, you'll walk out of the cinema pondering how a war can impact life in so many different ways.

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Category: Kai

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