Although gritty dramas about the hell of drug addiction are seldom in short supply in the low-budget independent sphere, it’s hard to imagine even the most uncompromising U.S. film committing quite as tenaciously to the idea of the bleak futility and probable failure of rehabilitation as Shih Han Liao’s compelling downer “The Paradise” (title ironic). Beginning where a more forcibly optimistic addiction drama might end — with a volatile young addict entering a recovery program — a lot of what makes “The Paradise” such an uncomfortable watch is its slow-motion explosion of the idea of rehab as a cure-all happy ending, or even an unquestionable good in its own right.
Premiering appropriately in the Shanghai International Film Festival’s Asian New Talent Award section, the film does herald a bright, if on this uncheerful evidence, not necessarily sunny future for its director. Liao’s command of craft and the excellent, underplayed performances he elicits are largely responsible for keeping us involved and for keeping the charred black heart of the screenplay, written by Siew Hong Chris Leong and Ting Ning Chen, at least intermittently beating. With this rich, deeply felt, authentically mounted social issues drama, it feels like Liao has found his vocation, which is especially notable given his only prior feature was genre horror “The Rope Curse.”
Then again, there are moments here that rival any horror film for sheer, stomach-dropping nightmarishness, not least because so much of the bad stuff happens to one very good man. Hua Ge (a deeply sympathetic Shih Hsien Wang) is an ex-addict who has set up a small farm on a hillside outside Taipei where he selflessly dedicates himself, as minder, manager and counselor, to the recovery of a motley collection of young drug users. Some of them, like the duplicitous bully Hua Ge mistakenly recruits as his second-in-command (Jack Tan, winner of the Shanghai Festival’s best actor award two years ago for “Shuttle Life”) are there at the behest of concerned parents. Others, like the mentally handicapped bully-magnet Zhu Sun don’t appear to have anywhere else to go. And still others, like the former champion kickboxer nicknamed “Rat” (a brooding Yuan Teng) are serving court-ordered rehab time.
The program, which is always struggling for funding, sets the recovering addicts to work around the farm, tilling the soil, selling the produce at market and even learning a trade in the on-site bakery. And it has a spiritual aspect, too: Just as God is central to the 12-step program, Hua Ge often leads his charges in recitations from Mahayana Buddhist text the Heart Sutra. As documented in a television interview with Hua Ge that punctuates the narrative and fills in the character’s backstory, it has had its successes: Rat develops an unexpected affinity for strawberry farming, and Chuang, a man about Hua Ge’s age who has since been discharged, developed a talent for baking. But the seeds of future tragedy are sown when the clearly institutionalized Chuang begs Hua Ge to be allowed to come back to the farm. What good is a rehab that only works when the patient is cloistered away from the real world and all its temptations? And perhaps, the film suggests even more depressingly, as the violence, criminality and ego-clashes among the farm’s residents escalate, not even then.
The darkness of the film’s themes is reflected in Meteor Cheong’s somber-paletted photography, much of which takes place at night or in the failing light of evening, when, as an unforced metaphor for transformation, the casually artful handheld camera picks out butterflies and moths, some living, others dead and dusty. Point Hsu’s minimalist score sits low in the mix when it is used at all, and gradually seems to recede altogether: The final credits play over a shot of a surprisingly moving single strawberry — the merest uptick of positivity amid the ashes — with no musical accompaniment at all.
Whether all this restraint is enough to earn the film’s most melodramatic and dubiously miserabilist turns of the screw is debatable. But Liao’s filmmaking confidence is undeniable, and though “The Paradise” offers no answers, the questions it poses about the whole way we approach treatment and recovery are potent and valuable. Unlike the rats that were successfully weaned off heroin in the experiment that inspired Hua Ge to start the farm in the first place, human addicts are additionally subject to the demons of human nature, and for that incurable condition, this pessimistic yet grimly absorbing story suggests, there is no treatment at all.