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Stunning to look at, authentic to a fault and a little tedious to follow for over two and a half hours, the Taiwanese action saga Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale tells the true story of Taiwan’s aboriginal people who were almost wiped out by Japanese colonizers in the 1930s. Their rebellion under the leadership of Chief Mouna Rudo is recounted in a spectacular, almost non-stop sequence of grisly hand-to-hand combat scenes. No martial arts here, but skillfully realistic fighting with spears and machetes, guns and cannons, which spare no one. Outside of China and particularly Taiwan, where a longer version will be released in two parts, this big-scale actioner coproduced by John Woo will check in as a strange sort of exotica for very specialized audiences, read festival and serious action fans.
Taiwanese writer/director Wei Te-Sheng, known for his top-grossing 2008 hit Cape No. 7, throws a bit of legend and magic into history as seen through the eyes of the proud insurgents, whose abject humiliation and descent into alcoholism under the arrogant Japanese provide many parallels to other stories, like the Native Americans. He has assembled an extraordinary cast of emotionally expressive, non-pro actors of aborigine descent, and watching their displays of physical prowess as they run barefoot through tropical forests is half the movie.
In lieu of the usual opening titles, the action begins as China hands Taiwan over to the Japanese in 1895. In the remote mountainous interior, aboriginal tribes of Seediqs still lead a traditional life, hunting for animals, warring with neighboring clans, head-hunting and tattooing their faces as a sign of initiation into manhood. Wei pulls no punches on the toughness of the chief’s arrogant son Mouna Rudo (played by Da Ching as a youth and Lin Ching-Tai as an adult), while extolling his fearless heroism in hunting and killing. Rather than conventional sympathy, viewers are made to feel respect for a man dyed in tradition.
When the tribes are at last contained by the Japanese army, who view them as savages and set out to “civilize” them with schools and post offices, they sink into wage slavery and alcoholism. During this interlude in the film’s battle scenes, Mouna Rudo secretly organizes the surviving Seediq clans in an uprising of 300 warriors. On a sports holiday, they stage a surprise massacre of the assembled Japanese which Mouna calls “a blood sacrifice to our ancestors” that includes abundant decapitation. In the guerrilla warfare that follows, the forest-wise Seediqs do serious damage to the Japanese army, until the generals call in airplanes, cannons, mortars and gas bombs to subdue them (the year is 1930.)
No matter how ingeniously it is varied, the non-stop fighting becomes oppressive in the long run. The film’s most memorable moments showing director Wei’s dramatic flare and the actors’ surprising natural talent are quieter moments: the suicide by hanging of the Seediq women who kill themselves rather than be a burden to their fighting husbands, and the extremely moving deaths of a mixed Japanese-Seediq family.
The action is set in the spell-binding Avatar-land of Mount Chilai and its lush rain forest, where waterfalls and rainbows, narrow paths and the ancient trunks and giant trees are embellished with bright green CGI work.
There are many standouts in the huge cast, from the fierce traditionalist Lin Ching-Taiin the leading role, to young Lin Yuan-Jieas an unstoppable boy warrior. Their tattoos, clothing and singing and dancing lend the film a stamp of authenticity. Dialogue is in Seediq and in Japanese.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (competing), Aug 31, 2011.
Production company: ARS Film Production, Central Motion Picture Corporation
Cast: Lin Ching-Tai, Umin Boya, Ando Masanobu, Kawahara Sabu, Vivian Hsu, Lo Mei-Ling, Landy Wen, Da Ching, Pawan Nawi, Yakau Kuhon, Lee Shih-Chia, Lin Yuan-Jie.
Director: Wei Te-Sheng
Screenwriter: Wei Te-Sheng
Producers: John Woo, Terence Chang, Jimmy Huang
Director of photography: Chin Ting-Chang
Production designer: Taneda Yohei
Music: Ricky Ho
Editors: Chen Po-Wen, Milk Su, Cheung Ka-Fai
Visual Effects: Foo Sing-Choong
Action Choreographers: Yang Kil-Yong, Shim Jae Won
Sales Agent: Fortissimo Films
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