Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Bruce Beresford (director and writer), Paradise Road (1997)

The film Paradise Road (1997), written and directed by Bruce Beresford, tells the harrowing tale of survival of female prisoners of war in a Japanese prison camp in Sumatra, Indonesia, during the Second World War.  The film celebrates the triumph of the human spirit in the face of extreme adversity while also commemorating the women who, sadly, did not survive. 

Pacifist at its core, the film celebrates the (non-violent) power of music to raise the morale of the oppressed and to ‘soothe a savage breast’ in the oppressors.  The victims form a voice orchestra to produce concerts that give a sense of purpose to the prisoners and a peaceful avenue through which to express their defiance in the face of systematic oppression and cruelty.  Meanwhile, the brutality of the Japanese guards and officers is somewhat softened by the beauty of the music, which touches their souls and enables them to tune in to the better sides of their nature. 

Very much a feminist film, Paradise Road departs from the norm of prisoner of war films that focus on men.  This film tells the lesser known but equally important story of women prisoners, celebrating their resilience and resourcefulness.  Meanwhile, the film also celebrates the emancipation of women following the second wave of feminism in the 1970s by reminding the cinema audience of the oppression of women in the 1940s, an era which, for example, limited the access of women to satisfying careers, like engineering or conducting orchestras, leaving them with a few stereotypical employment prospects, such as nursing or secretarial work. 

While celebrating the resilience of the female prisoners, the film inevitably features the war crimes of the enemy, the Japanese military, noting their frequent brutality and their systematic denial of sufficient food and medicine to the prisoners, policies that cost the lives of many people.   This oppression even included the notorious exploitation of some female prisoners as ‘comfort women’, who were used as sex slaves.  

However, the film sought to avoid appearing overtly anti-Japanese by attributing the atrocities, in part, to a cultural clash of divergent codes of war; with the Japanese rejecting the Western code of war, the Geneva Convention, preferring its own military traditions that regarded surrender as a dishonour worse than death, so prisoners were given little respect.  Meanwhile, the film highlighted the arrogant racism and insularity of British and Australians at this time, which made the anti-European hostility of the Japanese, and the indifference of most of the local Asian population to the predicament of the Europeans, seem more understandable.  It also provided a basis from which to praise Australia’s ethnically diverse post-war immigration program and multiculturalism, believing them to have mitigated these unsavoury attitudes.  In addition, the film’s anti-imperialism is evident in its depiction of the British Empire as decadent, oppressive, arrogant and complacent and therefore ripe for its demise in South-East Asia. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Paradise Road meaning, Paradise Road themes, Paradise Road analysis, Paradise Road notes