Detours to Paradise (歧路天堂), directed by Rich Lee (李奇), portrays the lives of “runaway” foreign workers in Taiwan. Statistics from the Council of Labor Affairs state there were 365,060 foreign workers from Southeast Asia in Taiwan at the end of 2008. In addition there were 25,821 runaway foreign workers. They are a significant group in number and must struggle to make a living in often harsh and difficult circumstances.
The movie revolves around Setia (Lola Amaria), an Indonesian maid, and her boyfriend Supayong (Banlop Lomnoi), a Thai construction worker. Both the lead actors learnt Mandarin especially for their roles in the film. They communicate with each other via their second language.
Their lives are unpredictable and they are often forced to make sudden changes as outside forces intervene. Amidst this uncertainty there are some moments of joy and kindness in the movie. Setia and Supayong share private times together in a hotel room. It is a place where they can escape together although on one occasion they are rudely interrupted by the police. Setia and Wonpen, a Thai woman, also support each other, sharing their stories and small gifts.
In one scene Setia is walking along Zhongxiao East Road approaching the bright lights of the Sogo Department Store. However, she turns off into a dark and narrow alley and wanders through a run down apartment building. Likewise the film frequently ventures into dark places. Setia and her friends live on the fringes of Taiwanese society. Their main contacts with Taiwanese people are their cruel bosses, criminals or clients purchasing sex.
The leading Taiwanese star of the film is Yang Kuei-mei (楊貴媚). She plays Fei Man-guang, a movie actress crippled in a car accident, depressed and suicidal at the loss of her career and family. The film turns when Setia discovers a connection to Fei in her past. Fei descends ever closer to the brink. Setia struggles to come to terms with with the past tragedy, but manages to keep on eking out an existence. She is a survivor.
The film does a wonderful job capturing the brave struggle of foreign workers to maintain some sense of hope and dignity in the midst of a cruel world. However, there are no happy endings.
*The film screened in Taipei with Chinese and English subtitles.