Just when I think I know all the instances of terrible ethnic cleansing in modern history, there comes a movie like Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale to bum me out.
Turns out that Taiwan had its own aboriginal culture prior to the invasion of the Japanese. Yeah, Japan ruled Taiwan from the late 1800s right through World War II. Part of their occupation was to do away with the “mountain savages” known as Seediqs, one group of which started what is known as the Wushe Rebellion.
Our first glimpses of Seediq tribes are absolutely fascinating. The customs are, if you'll forgive my gross cultural ignorance, far more familiar to me as rituals of Native Americans than people of the Far East. From their dress and tattoos, to the rite-of-passage hunting quests to the chanting and dancing, watching these early scenes made me feel like a complete moron that I knew nothing about this culture. I know where to point the finger for this, though: Japan.
After an initial conquest (shown in lengthy and gruesome detail) the film flashes forward many decades to show how the Seediq culture is being squeezed out of the new generations. Despite some job opportunities and education, however, the indigenous people (openly referred to as “savages”) are horribly stigmatized. The bulk of the clan lives in squalor, working as indentured servants, spending what little free time they have getting hammered on millet wine.
Eventually there is a breaking point incident (involving a perfectly cast weasel dickbag racist police officer whose comeuppance couldn't come fast enough) and the great warrior who tried to defend his people in the earlier part of the film, Mona Rudao, decides to go out like a man.
What follows is a long, long, long series of outstandingly violent raids and battles. (Did I mention this movie is produced by John Woo?)
Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale is quite far from perfect. There are what feel like fifteen different scenes where people ramble on about the nobility of the spirit and what it means to be a man. One would have sufficed. There are moments when things slide into hokey territory – like asking the womenfolk to literally keep the home fires burning. Our hero talks to poorly rendered CG ghosts. Also: some of the music is just atrocious, and one or two of the slow motion battle scenes might elicit a snicker where it is intended to leave a lump in your throat.
Okay, but put all that aside. Here's why you need to see this movie: apart from being about a remarkable, somewhat-recent historical incident, it pulls no punches in its quite detailed depiction of the Seediq people. They are not saints! In fact, they are kinda sadistic fuckers and at more that one point I thought to myself, “Gee, who am I supposed to be rooting for here?”
Some examples: when it is discovered that, since the men are out fighting, there may not be enough food back home the women MURDER their young children then commit suicide. The children who are old enough are forced to witness this, then they have to find their way to the fighting dads to beg them for the privilege of dying in battle.
These tribes are hardly warm and fuzzy. They measure their success in the amount of human skulls they've collected. As such, I feel confident in saying that there are more decapitations in Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale than in any other film in history. If you live in this neighborhood and want a steady income, become a sword sharpener.
Another cool thing is that the various tribes do not all band together. Prior to the Japanese coming they were constantly at war with one another and those feuds haven't exactly died down. Indeed, one rival tribe actually joins up with the Japanese just so he can sell out Mona Rudao's clan. It's an interesting story beat in a film that makes no bones about being a celebration, of sorts, to this forgotten culture.
Lastly, there are two major battles, one at the beginning and one at the end, that takes on an almost The Thin Red Line-like tone. The images roll by in a collage and the soundtrack drops out as echoey native chanting takes over. Not for just thirty seconds, but for lengthy stretches of time. It makes for some of the most artful scenes of people getting their heads chopped off you are likely to see for a while.
A truncated version of the film has had some minor distribution but the New York Asian Film Festival is giving the FOUR-AND-A-HALF HOUR version its stateside debut in advance of a Blu-ray release in August. These people suffered – you owe it to them to watch the full cut.