Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale
Taiwan, 2011, colour, 2.35:1, 156 mins.
Director: Wei Desheng 魏德圣.
International version of the two-part Taiwan epic is watchable but uninvolving, with repetitive action.
Taiwan. After the island is ceded by China to Japan in 1895, Japanese troops disembark at Jilong port to sweep the island clean of its aboriginal population and start exploiting its lumber and mineral wealth in the interior. They are initially beaten back by young warriors including Mouna Rudo (You Daqing), who has just attained manhood in the Mehebu Clan from Tgudaya, but they finally win the struggle, reducing the aboriginal population to forced labour. Thirty years later, in 1930, Mouna Rudo (Lin Qingtai) is now a clan chief of the Seediq tribe – based in central and eastern Taiwan – and head of Wushe village. There’s also been inter-marriage between Seediqs and Japanese, though the former are still treated as an inferior class. Aggravated by the oppressive behaviour of a Japanese policeman, Yoshimura, Mouna Rudo’s people finally suggest an uprising, though initially only six of the 12 Seediq clans agree to join in. After a well-planned initial massacre of Japanese, and occupation of the Wushe area, the news is phoned down to the plain and the Japanese army moves in under Kamada Yahiko (Kawahara Sabu), a general.
Dealing with an obscure slice of Taiwan history (an aboriginal uprising against Japanese colonists in 1930), featuring a largely no-name cast even in Asian terms, and released locally in two chunks with a combined running time of 274 minutes, Warriors of the Rainbow 赛德克•巴莱 [see separate review, here: ?] always seemed destined for an “international version”, for simple business reasons. But the one world premiered in competition at the Venice film festival – credited to Hong Kong editor Zhang Jiahui 张嘉辉 [Cheung Ka-fai] and entitled Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale 赛德克•巴莱 – hardly seems a very marketable proposition, cutting the original four-and-a-half hours down to a still sizeable two-and-a-half and concentrating heavily on action at the expense of character and clarity. [Actually premiered before the original version was released in Taiwan,] the result is a watchable, visually detailed but uninvolving action drama that never spends enough time with the characters to engender any emotional empathy, especially in the important middle section 90 minutes in. It’s also shorn of any sense of wider politics, social setting and even pure geography.
With few characters making much impression, and exact relationships between the aboriginals difficult to work out, it’s hard to feel involved in their plight. And none of the themes or intentions outlined by director Wei Desheng 魏德圣 in the pre-publicity emerges clearly in the international version. Wei, 42, says he wanted to show “an encounter between a people who believe in rainbows and a nation which believes in the sun”, though only the first is portrayed, with much dialogue about “crossing the rainbow bridge to the eternal hunting ground” (a phrase for a heroic and dignified death). Wei says the so-called Wushe Incident 雾社事件 was not just a native rebellion against oppressive colonialism but was also rooted in the Japanese ban of indigenous cultural practices, though in the international version it’s a simple uprising against oppression. Wei also adds that he didn’t set out to attack the Japanese, but in the international version they’re almost all portrayed as either sadists, ranting military or arrogant colonials.
With almost no social or historical backgrounding, the international version is largely a series of battles in the mountainous and heavily wooded interior of Taiwan. But with no screen geography to the action (largely shot in close-up), and no graphics to show even where the fighting is taking place, the viewer gets no sense of strategy, and therefore no feeling of involvement beyond visceral shocks. By the second hour, the action – staged by South Koreans Yang Gil-yeong 양길영 | 梁吉泳 and Shim Jae-weon 심재원 | 沈在元 (Arahan 아라한, 2004) – starts to become very repetitive, with no sense of a dramatic arc towards a final showdown: though the staging is always believable and detailed, the film as a whole lacks individual setpieces with their own personality and dynamics. Striking moments like the forest bursting into flame at the two-hour mark are few and far between.
None of the above-mentioned faults may be in the full-length version, which appears, from reports, to go into much more social detail in its first part. However, that version seems unlikely to be seen much outside Asia, at least in the immediate future. In the event, a radically shorter, simpler and less ambitious international cut of around 115 minutes might have worked better.
Performances are okay without being especially involving, and totally dominated by the playing by non-pro Lin Qingtai 林庆台 of Mouna Rudo, the aboriginals’ middle-aged leader – a seediq bale (real man) who oozes screen presence without actually doing much except give didactic speeches. Japan’s Ando Masanobu 安藤政信 (The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman 刀见笑, 2010) makes only a limited impression as a sympathetic Japanese, and the female cast hardly gets a look in.
On the positive side, the movie seems to lay to rest any fears that Wei could handle a project of such scope, after two modest movies (About July 七月天, 1999; Cape No. 7 海角七号, 2008). Shot over 10 months on a reported budget of NT$700 million – making it the biggest Taiwan production ever – the film has none of the directorial awkwardness and poor pacing of Cape, at least in Zhang’s cut. Widescreen photography by Wei’s regular d.p., the experienced Qin Dingchang 秦鼎昌 (The Shoe Fairy 人鱼朵朵, 2005; Hear Me 听说, 2009; Prince of Tears 泪王子, 2009), is especially spacious in the opening hour and mobile within the claustrophobic forests. The symphonic score by He Guojie 何国杰 [Ricky Ho] is fairly conventional heroic stuff; but production and costume design both manage to look realistic and also work in movie terms.
A small number of earlier Taiwan movies about aboriginals largely used them for colourful backdrops to stories of Han Chinese. Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale goes to the other extreme, with almost no Han Chinese on screen. As a result, all the dialogue is in Seediq and Japanese.
Presented by Central Motion Picture Corporation (TW), ARS Film Production (TW). Produced by ARS Film Production (TW).
Script: Wei Desheng. Photography: Qin Dingchang. Editing: Zhang Jiahui [Cheung Ka-fai], Chen Bowen, Su Peiyi. Music: He Guojie [Ricky Ho]. Production designer: Taneda Yohei. Art direction: Akatsuka Yoshihito. Costume design: Qiu Ruolong, Deng Liqi, Lin Xinyi, Du Meiling. Sound: Du Duzhi. Action: Yang Gil-yeong, Shim Jae-weon. Visual Effects: Hu Shengzhong (Beijing Crystal Film & Media). Production advice: Dakis Pawan.
Cast: Lin Qingtai [Nolay Piho] (Mouna Rudo), Ma Zhixiang [Umin Boya] (Temu Walis), Ando Masanobu (Kojima Genji), Kawahara Sabu (Kamada Yahiko, general), Xu Ruoxuan [Vivian Hsu/Bidai Syulan] (Takayama Hatsuko), Luo Meiling [Yokuy Utaw] (Kawano Hanako), Wen Lan [Yungai Hayung] (Mahung Mouna), You Daqing [Yuki Daki] (young Mouna Rudo), Zeng Qiusheng [Pawan Nawi] (Rudo Luhe), Tian Jun [Yakau Kuhon] (Tado Mouna), Li Shijia [Pawan Neyung] (Baso Mouna), Lin Yuanjie [Umin Walis] (Pawan Nawi), Zhang Zhiwei (Pihu Sapu), Xu Yifan [Bokeh Kosang] (Hanaoka Ichiro/Dakis Nawi), Su Da [Soda Voyu] (Hanaoka Jiro), Kimura Yuichi (Satsuka Ayu), Ma Rulong (owner of trade centre), Tanaka Chie (Kojima’s wife), Zheng Zhiwei [Pihu Nawi] (Wu Jindun).
Premiere: Venice Film Festival (Competition), 1 Sep 2011.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 3 Sep 2011.)