In Paradise Road the vocal orchestra strengthens the community and brings the different nationalities together. Before the establishment of the choir, Bruce Beresford strategically emphasises racial differences, rivalry and racial tension. The choir helps to bridge differences and stimulates camaraderie among the women. Beresford shows that beauty, in this case singing, helps to nurture our finer qualities, our sensitivities and bring people together.
The choir also creates a bridge with the Japanese whereby many of the soldiers reveal suppressed moments of compassion that struggle to resurface. They feel instinctively unable to break up the vocal orchestra meetings and even XXXX guard sings in the forest to Adrienne revealing a rare glimpse of his humanity. Ironically, at this stage Adrienne fears for her life because she is alone, vulnerable and at the whim of her brutal oppressor in the forest. And yet, uncharacteristically he breaks into song, competing with the birds, and thereby reveals a rare vulnerability based on beauty and song.
- Many of the women inmates in the Japanese war camp in Sumatra also have a capacity to inspire and hope and this shows their determined spirit.
- They have the courage and audacity to hope and find some humanity in their oppressive situation.
- By establishing the vocal orchestra, Adrienne and Margaret become beacons of hope. They dare to nurture the human spirit despite the overwhelming depravity that surrounds them.
- They encourage other women to participate in the choir and the director shows that their mellifluous voices rise above the chilling brutality of the Japanese soldiers.
- Despite the clear act of provocation, the women are not deterred and the glimpses of beauty sustain them.
The director, Bruce Beresford, shows that the singing is so uplifting that it has the capacity to reach the most brutal people. Sargeant Tomiachi sings to Adrienne during a brief respite because he is anxious to show her that he is capable of some sensitivity. This appears incongruous because of ruthlessness and brutality.
Growth, change and character insights
Adrienne apologises to Margaret for her “snobbery”. In Singapore, she was contemptuous of missionaries because they appeared so self-righteous.
Ruth grows in stature and personally develops through hardship; she establishes a professional relationship with the Doctor who encourages her to pursue a medical career and confront her parents’ goals. She is “punished” for insubordination and has to withstand days kneeling in the sun.
Change of priorities: By telling her first lie, Sister Wilhelmina compromises her beliefs to protect Adrienna who is in danger of being charged and perhaps killed for insubordination after “assaulting” the guard who was trying to rape her at the toilet block.
Different degrees of corruption: the opportunistic streak in the German doctor
Those who maintain a pragmatic outlook, often have more chance of surviving. The Doctor’s belief is that during times of crisis, we all have to make some compromises, but we must evaluate which are more important than others and which will bring better rewards.
The Doctor seeks to maintain her impartiality in order to look after the sick inmates in the best way possible. She extracts their gold teeth to acquire medicine and favours for the inmates.
Whilst the Doctor has an opportunistic streak she keeps the interests of her inmates in mind. Sometimes people can turn the conflict to their advantage. During another crisis, people are much more opportunistic and self-searching. This can lead to benefits for ordinary people – often not according to the original intentions.
Similarly, the nun tells her first lie to the Colonel in order to defend Adrienne against the charge of insubordination and protect her from the death sentence. (Compare with Elizabeth Proctor.)
It is not always easy to maintain hope: survival dictates one’s choices
In turning their back on the orchestra and their friends, many women search for an easy solution or option and compromise their humanity. They are often defeated or destroyed by conflict because they lack strength or courage to withstand the oppression.
Some of the women choose to compromise their values and become prostitutes for the Japanese to survive. Such women attract the opprobrium (public disgrace) of their fellow inmates but realise that they lack the strength to live a life without some comfort. One of the woman inmates is obsessed with soap, water and cleanliness and for this reason accepts the offer of a more comfortable refuge.
They have to live with the shame.
Or was it just a means to survival?
It has also been documented by survivors that the Japanese offered a select group of women the opportunity to act as service-women for the officials. Not regarded as acceptable to most women before they entered the camp, some women felt that in their situation, the moral order had changed and therefore their values too underwent an alteration. Constrained and engulfed by conflict a minority of women compromised their dignity due to their basic need to survive. Shelving their values, the women, like victims of today’s society enter prostitution and servility, hoping to survive their battle to survive.
During such tense times people also become very suspicious and wary of each other. The inmates frequently suspect each other of betrayal because of their tenuous situation.
Difficult times breed insecurity and people often succumb to their worst nightmares.
Best Parallels with Paradise Road
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Based on extensive research of true incidents, Bruce Beresford’s “Paradise Road” is an honorable and even noble effort to pay tribute to the courage and strength of a group of disparate women held captive by the Japanese during World War II. Though carefully rendered from a historical perspective, this powerful account of female friendship and bonding under the most cruel conditions lacks the narrative focus and dramatic shapeliness to generate emotional excitement. Still, the illustrious cast, toplined by Glenn Close, Pauline Collins and Frances McDormand, and potential interest by mostly female viewers in this still little-known chapter of history, should ensure a reasonably decent opening for the Fox Searchlight release, though ultimately, theatrical results will not meet expectations.
Written by Beresford, who reportedly spent two years studying the era and interviewing survivors, story recounts more accurately events and personalities similar to those depicted in Jean Negulesco’s 1950 war melodrama “Three Came Home,” starring Claudette Colbert. Tale begins in Singapore’s Raffles Hotel on Feb. 10, 1942, when a military ball is interrupted by Japanese bombing. The women and children are put aboard a ship, which suffers a massive attack, with the survivors thrown into a camp. Though they are from different countries — and different social strata — the women are forced to find common ground in order to survive the brutalities of camp life.
Initial sequences jump around too much before the film settles on its half-dozen heroines: British Adrienne Pargiter (Close), a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music; Margaret “Daisy” Drummond (Collins), a gentle Australian missionary; Dr. Verstak (McDormand), the only German in camp; Australian nurse Susan McCarthy (Cate Blanchett); and Topsy Merritt (Julianna Margulies), the sole American in the group.
Early on, Margaret observes, “The thing they despise most are European women prisoners.” “That’s us,” says Adrienne, and a friendship evolves. Ensuing drama unfolds within two distinct frameworks: the antagonistic relationship between the women and their brutish Japanese captors, and the more interesting and complex relationships among the female prisoners themselves, who form a truly multinational unit.
Directly disobeying orders, Adrienne forms a vocal orchestra, in which she literally has to beg the members to participate — at risk of their lives. The arduous recruitment, the clandestine, often violently interrupted rehearsals, and public performances provide the most engaging moments of an otherwise sprawling story. But despite the uniqueness of the situation and its dramatis personae, “Paradise Road” falls victim to its generic format. The arguments and conflicts, concerning fights over food, suspicion, betrayal and collaboration with the enemy, recall such classic prison war movies as “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Stalag 17,” even if earlier renditions centered on male protagonists.
Worse yet, helmer stumbles into a predictable narrative rhythm: Almost every act of courage or defiance by the women is followed by an act of ruthless torture by the Japanese, and back again. This makes the film tediously repetitious, rambling from one episode to another with no strong, involving center. Beresford may have created too many characters for one drama, and he can’t maintain control over them — or give each more than a few sentences or a few identification traits. The dialogue — and humor — is often forced, as in the scenes between domineering Mrs. Roberts (Elizabeth Spriggs) and her sheepish daughter, Celia (Tessa Humphries), which are reminiscent of the Gladys Cooper-Deborah Kerr interaction in Terence Rattigan’s “Separate Tables.”
Still, Beresford’s humanistic approach, which often rises above these problems, conveys vividly how, despite chaos, hatred and strife, the women managed to create something pure and beautiful: music. This is all the more accentuated by the fact that the chorale didn’t perform popular songs, but highly intricate arrangements of classical music, such as Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” Beresford aims to show how ordinary women become extraordinary, but the film doesn’t deal sufficiently with their musical activities, instead paying too much attention to the more familiar details of camp survival.
Still, this well-intentioned, uplifting chronicle contains some genuinely touching moments, such as the scene in which Japanese guards are sent to break up the performance, but instead find themselves deeply moved by the music and thus refuse to silence the women. Or the contemptible castigation when a prisoner caught for dealing in the black market is set on fire in front of her terrified mates.
Of the large, international female cast, two thesps stand out. Close dominates every scene she’s in with her highly modulated performance, bringing her customary edge to the tough role of the choir’s conductor. Collins, as usual, radiates warmth and intelligence as the kind missionary who often mediates among the various factions.
As the cynical doctor who hides a secret about her past, McDormand, so brilliant in “Fargo,” here gives a stiff, one-dimensional performance (which is a function of the script), and her heavy German accent is no more than passable. A lively lineup of both young and veteran thesps fill out the large ensemble, adding color to the proceedings.
Shot mostly in Penang, Malaysia (standing in for Sumatra), pic boasts a strong sense of period verisimilitude, with particularly impressive contributions from lenser Peter James and production designer Herbert Pinter. Some of the music has survived the horror of the camps, as original members of the choir donated copies of their scores to various museums around the world.
Production: A Fox Searchlight release of a Village Roadshow Pictures production. Produced by Sue Milliken, Greg Coote. Executive producers, Andrew Yap, Graham Burke. Directed, written by Bruce Beresford.
Crew: Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Peter James; editor, Tim Wellburn; music, Ross Edwards; production design, Herbert Pinter; art direction, Ian Gracie; set decoration, Brian Edmonds; costume design, Terry Ryan; sound (Dolby), Gary Wilkins; visual effects coordinator, Brian Cox; assistant director, Colin Fletcher; casting, Alison Barrett, Joseph Middleton, Patsy Pollock. Reviewed at Culver Studios, Culver City, March 25, 1997. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 115 MIN.
With: Adrienne Pargiter - Glenn Close Margaret Drummond - Pauline Collins Susan McCarthy - Cate Blanchett Dr. Verstak - Frances McDormand Topsy Merritt - Julianna Margulies Rosemary Leighton-Jones - Jennifer Ehle Mrs. Roberts - Elizabeth Spriggs Celia Roberts - Tessa Humphries Oggi - Susie Porter Colonel Hiroyo - Sab Shimono
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