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.
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Paradise Road is a 1997 Australian war film that tells the story of a group of English, American, Dutch and Australian women who are imprisoned by the Japanese in Sumatra during World War II. It was directed by Bruce Beresford and stars Glenn Close as Adrienne Pargiter, Frances McDormand as the brash Dr. Verstak, Pauline Collins as missionary Margaret Drummond (based on missionary Margaret Dryburgh), Julianna Margulies as U.S. socialite Topsy Merritt, Jennifer Ehle as British doyenne and model Rosemary Leighton Jones, Cate Blanchett as Australian nurse Susan McCarthy and Elizabeth Spriggs as dowager Imogene Roberts.
Basing his film on real events, Bruce Beresford tells the story of a vocal orchestra created by the women in a Japanese Internment camp, a classic survivors' tale about women's ability to survive hardship and atrocity through perseverance, solidarity and creativity. The film opens with a dance at the Cricket Club in Singapore. Wives and husbands, soldiers and socialites are enjoying a night of dancing, libations, and conversation. The scene is happy and carefree, but the film continues to unfold and it soon becomes known that a war is raging right outside the doors. Paradise Road is set during the time of World War II, and the Japanese forces have just attacked Singapore. When a bomb explodes right outside the club, it becomes known that the Japanese have advanced beyond defensive lines. The women and children are immediately collected and carried off by a boat to a safer location. A few hours out, the boat is bombed by Japanese fighter planes and the women must jump over board to save their lives.
Three women, Adrienne Pargiter the wife of a tea planter, Rosemary Leighton-Jones a model and the girlfriend of a Royal Malayan Volunteer, and Susan Macarthy, an Australian nurse, swim their way to shore. The place on which they land is the island of Sumatra. The women are found by a Japanese officer, Captain Tanaka, and ushered to a deserted village. They are then taken to a prison camp in the jungle. The three women are reunited with the rest of the women and children from the boat. At the prison camp, there are women of all nationalities including Dutch, English, Irish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Australian; and they all come from many levels of society. Some of the women are nuns, some are nurses, and some are socialites and mothers. The women are forced to bow to the Japanese officers and its flag. The women must endure torture and hard labour while trying to remain positive and level headed. Many believe the war would end soon and their husbands or soldiers will come looking for them. Nonetheless, the living conditions are brutal, and many face sickness and death.
The women have been at the prison camp for two years now. Adrienne Pargiter, a graduate from the Royal Academy of Music, and Daisy "Margaret" Drummond a missionary, decided to create a vocal orchestra in order to encourage the women. Some of the women fear for their lives because the Japanese officers, especially Sergeant Tomiashi "The Snake", who is made known for his cruelty and abuse, have prohibited any meetings whether religious or social. The orchestra finally performs for the entire camp, even the officers stop to listen to the vibrant music. However, the music only works as motivation for so long and the women continue to dwindle in numbers. After some time, the women are moved to a new location where they will remain for the duration of the war. The war ends and the women rejoice for their freedom. The film closes on a scene of the last performance by the vocal orchestra. The vocal orchestra performed more than 30 works from 1943 to 1944. The original scores survived the war and are the basis for the music performed in the film. In 1997, many of the survivors were still alive during the making of the film and contributed to the inspiration for Paradise Road.
The story is based on the testimony of Betty Jeffrey, as written in her 1954 book White Coolies. The 1965 book Song of Survival by Helen Colijn (granddaughter of Hendrikus Colijn), another camp survivor, is not listed in the film's credits as being a source for this film, although Colijn is thanked for her help in the credits.
According to the media information kit for the film, Martin Meader and David Giles researched the story from 1991 and met with survivors from the camp and choir. Meader and Giles wrote the original screenplay, which was titled "A Voice Cries Out". Graeme Rattigan then joined Meader and Giles and together the three travelled the world, raising $8.275 million for the film. They met Beresford in London and he immediately became interested in the project. Together with Village Roadshow, Beresford took over the film, re-wrote the script and renamed the project Paradise Road.
Beresford and producer Sue Milliken then did their own research of the story for over more than two years, by reading books and unpublished diaries on the subject and by interviewing survivors. Meader and Giles got a "Story by" credit, and with Rattigan, they all received a Co-Executive Producer Credit. Their company, Planet Pictures, received an "In Association With" credit.
The film represents an alternative take on female imprisonment by the Japanese during World War II compared with BBC's dramatic offering from the early 1980s, Tenko. Some criticism of the film's historical accuracy is discussed in an article by Professor Hank Nelson.
Fox provided $19 million of the budget with $6 million coming from Singapore businessman Andrew Yap.
The role of Dr Verstak was originally offered to Anjelica Huston who demanded more profit share than the filmmakers were willing to give, so Frances McDormand was cast instead. The part of Margaret Drummond was to be played by Jean Simmons but she had to withdraw due to illness; the studio wanted Joan Plowright but she accepted another offer and Pauline Collins wound up being cast. Fox were reluctant to cast Cate Blanchett in the lead as she was relatively unknown at the time but Beresford insisted.
Production took place in Marrickville Sydney, Singapore, Port Douglas and Penang.
During World War II, many women became prisoners of war and faced a twenty to fifty percent death rate in Japanese prison camps. However, many women prisoners of war stories have been overlooked, with the exception of the women POWs of Sumatra. Thousands of British and Dutch colonist made the East Indies their home. Singapore was the most popular living option with the Raffles Hotel, shops, and beautiful houses, which attracted many soldiers and their wives. The Japanese armed forces attacked Pearl Harbor, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong on 7 December 1941. Europeans held the Japanese forces to an inferior level and put their trust in the British navy that guarded Singapore. But the Japanese advanced on British military lines, captured the British airfield, and dropped bombs on the city, which led to a retreat by the British forces. On 15 February 1942 the Japanese took Singapore.
Due to the belief that the city was safe, many women and children had remained in Singapore when the city was attacked. The inhabitants of the city, including women and children, ran to board ships to flee the island. Some of these ships housed the women POWs of Sumatra. The "Vyner Brooke" contained 65 nurses from the Australian Army Nursing Service. It reached the Banka Strait before the Japanese attacked and released bombs over the ship. The women and children were forced to jump overboard to save their lives, but the Japanese continued to fire on the women in the water.
The survivors swam ashore to Banka Island. One of the Australian nurses suggested the women and children to head toward a village on the island while the nurses remained on the beach to care for the men's wounds. When the Japanese discovered them, the men were rounded up and twenty-two of the nurses were forced back into the water where they were shot by the soldiers. Only Vivian Bullwinkel survived the open fire. Bullwinkel later found the rest of the nurses that survived the sinking of the ship. The women were transferred from Banka Island to Sumatra. Some survived the multiple voyages back and forth between the islands for three and a half years. The women were living in the Sumatra prison camp when the war ended and a rescue came for the survivors.
On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 48% approval rating, based on 21 reviews, with an average rating of 5.9/10. On Metacritic, the film received a weighted average score of 48 out of 100, based on 18 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".