Hit ‘Em Up: Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale film review
Opening this weekend in the U.S., Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale has bloody battles, fierce beheadings, brave sacrifice, facial tattoos, evil Japanese, and everything else you could ask for in an action movie. It’s another example of the huge growth of the commercial Taiwanese film industry which, as I’ve noted before, is a long way from the arthouse days of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien.
Seediq Bale (which translates as “true man” or “real person”) is the most expensive Taiwanese production ever, and it’s also one of last year’s most popular films in Taiwan and Hong Kong (it just came out in China this week). It was originally released in a four-and-a-half-hour, two-part version in Asia—here in the U.S. we get the trimmed-down festival edit that only runs 2.5 hours. The shorter version seems to hit most of the significant plot points and moves along at a brisk pace, especially once the fighting starts.
Interestingly enough, the film is directed by Wei Te-shing, who also directed the sentimental and cheesy rom-com Cape No. 7, which featured a curiously nostalgic view of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. In Seediq Bale Wei corrects Cape No. 7’s soft-focus representation of the occupation, as the Japanese are portrayed as fascistic aggressors who deserve to become machete-fodder for the vengeful Seediq.
Seediq Bale is based on the Wushe Incident, a real-life event during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan when in 1930 some few hundreds of indigenous Seediq tribespeople rose up against the colonizers. The fighting lasted almost two months, during which the Seediq, despite the Japanese troops’ superior numbers and firepower, killed more than one thousand Japanese soldiers and undermined the Japanese operations in the Wushe region.
The film starts out with the Seediq blissfully hunting boar, chanting and dancing, and squabbling amongst themselves about who has the most swag. Their little jungle paradise, however, is soon disrupted by the arrival of the conquering Japanese, who won the island of Taiwan from the Chinese in the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki. Not unlike the fate of the Native Americans after the arrival of the Europeans, the Seediq are subjugated by the maurading Japanese, with their hunting curtailed and their jungle homelands cut down. After a couple decades of the Japanese usurption of their culture and territory, Seediq chief Mouna Rudo decides to take matters into his own hands and plans with his clan to kill the Japanese squatting his land and to retake control of the jungles.
Director Wei makes great use of the gorgeous terrain, with his gliding camerawork following the fleet-footed Seediq racing barefoot through Taiwan’s jungles. He also contrasts the bland and unimaginative, uniformed Japanese with the wild and wooly, improvisational Seediq, who used their familiarity with the landscape to corner and ambush their befuddled foes. Clearly espousing the tenets of guerilla warfare, one Seediq says, “You have to think like the wind–it’s invisible.”
There’s no denying the sheer pleasure in watching a persecuted minority rise up to utterly decimate its oppressors, and to see the Seediq outwit the Japanese and literally cut them down to size is an unholy joy. Yet the film avoids becoming a good native/bad invader polemic by also showing the intratribal strife among the Seediq—not all of the tribal chiefs wholeheartedly supported Mouna Rodu’s quixotic rebellion and some of them actively oppose it, taking revenge for old slights by siding with the Japanese against Mouna’s clan.
The film is both a liberation story and cautionary tale, demonstrating both the need to fight back against the oppressor as well as the great cost of the struggle for sovereignty. A long and emotionally intense passage shows a group of Seediq women, who are as dangerous as the men, sacrificing themselves for their tribe by committing mass suicide. There’s also an interesting subplot about the cultural conflicts of two of the Seediq who have assimilated as low-ranking policemen in the Japanese occupying forces.
Movie idol Masanobu Ando is fierce and gorgeous as per usual as a Japanese soldier who befriends some of the Seediq, but the film’s real star is first-time actor Lin Ching Tai as the scary-good Mouna Rudo. Lin is charismatic and convincing as the badass leader of the Mehebu tribe who decides to stand up to the abusive Japanese invaders, rallying his troops with declamations about the blood sacrifice that will enable them to earn the facial tats they’ll need to enter the afterlife’s fertile hunting grounds.
Also aces is the adolescent Lin Yuan-Jie as Pawan, a young Seediq warrior in the making who earns his tribal tattoos by wielding a mean machine gun. Other Seediq parts are filled by various Taiwanese pop stars with real-life aboriginal blood, including Vivian Hsu, Landy Wen, and Umin Boya. The inclusion of these celebrities is a shrewd move on the part of Wei, as it increases box office appeal while at the same time pointing out the previously overlooked indigenous heritage of some of Taiwan’s most popular singers and actors.
The film’s message is that it’s better to die a brave death as a free man than to capitulate to the colonizer, even against impossible odds. Passionate, violent, and entertaining as hell, the movie is a glorious tribute to its downtrodden protagonists who fight back against colonization and extermination in order to preserve their cultural beliefs.
NOTE: Apparently the success of Seediq Bale in Taiwan (it won Best Picture at this year’s Golden Horse Awards) has spurred an upsurge of interest in indigenous Taiwanese culture, including the building of Seediq Bale Park in Taipei that recreates one of the film’s locations. There tourists can see props from the movie and purchase memorabilia, although, unlike in the movie, the streets are probably not strewn with headless corpses.