Showcasing a period in world history rarely glimpsed by general North American moviegoers, the most expensive Taiwanese film on record, Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, transports viewers to a period of time roughly between 1930 and 1940 when the aboriginal tribes of the temperate forests of Taiwan rose up against their Japanese occupiers after approximately 25 years of occupation. It’s a heck of a story told in an engaging, earnest manner, but at times it suffers from money seemingly going to the wrong places of the production and a North American edit for theatrical release that feels choppy at times.
Once regarded as a hero by the Mehebu tribe, Mouna Rudo (Lin Ching-Tai) now lives a life of surly, drunken subservience to the imperial Japanese army that has turned his clan’s ancestral home and hunting grounds into a military outpost. Sparked on by a fed-up younger leader from a rival tribe (Umin Boya), Chief Mouna asks his former foe to help him bring together the remaining ten tribes to wipe out the Japanese once and for all.
The main attractions here are a strong leading performance from Ching-Tai and some excellently thought out battle sequences. Ching-Tai shows the years of wear and tear the quiet warrior has endured, but also the grace that such experience brings. The battle sequences make nice use of some hard to navigate landscapes. A pair of battles against the Japanese along the edge of a rocky cliff face are stunning, and most of these sequences take place on inclines in the middle of the mountains, much like actual battles in the region would have taken place.
It’s a little disappointing that director Wei Te-Sheng takes a lot of stylistic cues from Executive Producer John Woo. At times the style seems to be taking centre stage over the substance, and it’s a burden that even this $25 million (US) film can’t fully handle. Slow motion sequences and some extremely shoddy digital effects add a few silly moments that distract from an otherwise serious story. It requires a special kind of suspension of disbelief at times.
This could be overlooked, but the film almost falls victim to its own ambition, which can be evidenced in some cinematography where the effort and intent is noticeable, but the talent behind the camera isn’t, with many elaborate pans and handheld moments feeling forced and amateurish. Maybe if more money was spent strengthening the actual battle sequences and fights instead of just beheading or shooting every casualty of war (or having people actually hold knives and swords in place to look like the got stabbed) instead of paying for dolly tracks and cranes, the emotional impact would be greater.
The sometimes jerky feeling nature of the film also doesn’t get an assist by the fact that the film, which now sits at two hours and thirty four minutes, was once a two part film totalling five hours in length. I’m not quite sure what was cut from the original version and it isn’t a huge problem for the first hour and a half, but after the battles begin and the pace tends to slow at times, some necessary character development seems to have fallen by the wayside.
The film does pick up again towards the end, but I’d still like to see what the full version looks like even with the flaws and the vastly increased length. Although, the intent was to make this a big screen experience and the history at the heart of it is more engaging than watching the same war story being told for the hundredth time, I still can’t help but think that there’s a better version of this film out there and that even that version still has flaws.
Cast: Lin Ching-Tai, Umin Boya, Chi-Wei Cheng
Directed by: Wei Te-Sheng
Top image: A scene from Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale.