NYAFF Review: Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale


[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]

To see the entirety of Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, you will need to spend 274 minutes in front of a screen (a bit less if you don’t care about credits). For those of you not interested in math, that is more than four and a half hours. It’s no Satantango, but it’s still a real time commitment. There’s also a 150 minute version, if you don’t have any interest in seeing films as they were meant to be seen, but let’s ignore that. For our purposes, there is only one version of Seediq Bale, and it will require quite a bit of patience. Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Is it worth four and a half hours of your life? Well… that depends on how much you like decapitations.

Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (赛德克·巴莱)
Director: Wei Te-Sheng
Rating: NR
Country: Taiwan 

Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale is based on an uprising known as the Wushe Incident. In the early part of the 20th Century, Japan came to occupy Taiwan. The Wushe area was home to a group known as the Seediqs, of which there were a number of clans. The Japanese took the area over, treated the Seediqs like savages (and referred to them as such), and were generally oppressive towards the natives. In 1930, after an incident involving an officer named Katsuhiko Yoshimura at the wedding of the son of one of the tribal chiefs, things finally came to a head. Soon after, Mona Rudao called upon his own men and men from the other tribes to rise up against the Japanese empire. He asked them to become Seediq Bale (translated as “true men”) who will go bravely to the eternal hunting ground across the rainbow bridge and be accepted by their ancestors.

All of that is true. In fact, the first thing I did upon finishing Seediq Bale was head over to Wikipedia and see how historically accurate it was. And all of that was true. So the framing narrative of Seediq Bale is a sound one. The general events take place in the film the way they did in real life. And certainly key moments of the film could be inferred from the carnage that covered the countryside. But most of the film is forcibly the work of fiction. As the old saying goes: dead men tell no tales.

And there are a lot of dead men. And dead women. And dead children as well. Also animals. I would say that the vast majority of things that have a pulse onscreen at some point in the film stop having that pulse by the time the credits roll. Seriously, a lot of people die. I mentioned decapitations in the introduction, and that’s because the only way for a man to become a Seediq Bale would be to decapitate his enemy. Without that blood on their hands, he could not cross the rainbow bridge. This means that Seediqs of all ages pick up their machetes and go to battle, ready to hunt heads.

Young Mona Rudao in Warriors of the Rainbow Seediq Bale

If you couldn’t guess, Seediq Bale is a brutal movie. There are all kinds of weapons in use (although straight hand-to-hand fighting never enters the mix), and that goes for both sides. Unlike other “savages,” the Seediqs use guns, and they are very adept with them. They use arrows as well, but that’s as much for the purpose of stealth as anything else. They do not cling to their old technologies and assume that they are the only way to defeat the Japanese. In fact, none of them has the slightest inclination that they actually could defeat the Japanese. Years before the incident took place, Mona Rudao and other Seediq chiefs were brought to Japan and shown planes and ships and weapons. It was a warning, impressing upon them the power of the Empire and the worthlessness of their own artillery. For years, it was enough to keep them in check, but a wild animal can only stay caged for so long.

Mona Rudao is Seediq Bale‘s protagonist, and the film shows him at two important points in his life. The first is when he becomes a Seediq Bale. He decapitates his first enemy and is given the requisite face tattoos affirming his status. Young Mona Rudao (played by Da Ching) is the son of the chief and the hero of the village. He is set to become the next chief, and his father’s death and the immediate consequences are the lead-in to the meat of the story. Chief Mona Rudao (played by Lin Ching-Tai) is far less rash, and he accepts and understands what he is up against. As much as he wants to fight back, he doesn’t want to see his entire village be massacred. He’s far more mature, but no less dangerous.

Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale

Although I have no interest in seeing the drastically cut version of Seediq Bale, I’m curious what was removed. I’ve heard that the kept a lot of the violence and decided to forego much of the character work, and that’s a real shame. In that way, it reminds me of Das Boot, where cutting the five hour version in half means removing the moments that made it so interesting. Fighting is all well and good (and Seediq Bale has far more of it than Das Boot), but there needs to be something to counteract it. Seediq Bale isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a two and a half hour movie about decapitations. It should be a four and a half hour movie about the people who do the decapitations. 

Well, maybe a four hour movie. Even though I am generally okay with how long Seediq Bale is, there are definitely some moments that could be cut down or removed entirely. About thirty minutes could be cut out without detriment to the story, and that would have fixed some of the more poorly paced scenes. I can’t see how cutting more would work. In fact, most of the ending dragged on for me, and that’s probably stuff that was kept anyway. Regardless, the extra time gives the characters more room to grow. Aside from Mona Rudao, the film focuses on a number of other characters from his tribe. There are some interesting characters, and most of them are fleshed out enough that their inevitable deaths are worth mourning.

Young Mona Rudao Warriors of the Rainbow Seediq Bale

As unpleasant as it is to watch decapitation after decapitation, the horrors of war go far beyond the battlefield, and Wei Te-Sheng and co. understand that and pull no punches. They made a movie that takes full advantage of its impact on the human pyche. The most obvious case of this, and one of the more horrifying things I’ve seen in a movie in quite some time, comes with a mass suicide. Over a dozen people simultaneously hang themselves, because there’s nothing else they can do. The ability for them to simply make nooses with branches or scarves, put the nooses around their necks, and jump is really quite disturbing, and the fact that it probably happened the way the film portrayed it makes things so much worse. To push people that far, to give them no other choice than to collectively kill themselves, is terrible, and it happened. Seediq Bale pulls no punches.

When it comes to the battles themselves, Seediq Bale is mostly successful at creating real, tense environments. A lot of it is shot on some kind of location, and the jungles usually look quite nice. Most impressive is the quality of the decapitations, which are easily some of the best I’ve seen in a movie. Considering how many of them there are, that’s a good thing. But it’s not all sunshine and ponies. Originally I was going to say “rainbows,” but it turns out that rainbows are a big part of the problem. Like a lot of Asian films, Seediq Bale‘s CGI is really unacceptable in this day and age. There are clearly a lot of practical effects used in an attempt to overcome limitations that they must have understood were there, but some key moments are hampered by some very, very ugly CGI. The worst offenders are the animals and the planes. The film actually opens with a hunt, and the boar they are chasing doesn’t look like it’s there. At all. The planes are even worse, and the big shot where Japanese fighter planes take off looks like it was hand-animated by a first-year art student.

Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale

Then there are the green screens. I understand that limited budget means that the quality of the CGI will suffer. That happens, and I guess I can accept that, but I can’t think of the last time I’ve seen green screen work in a movie that really tried. There are key moments which take place against a green screen (several of them involving rainbows), and all of them look awful. Although you don’t see the green itself, there’s a fuzzy outline against the actors’s bodies which leaves no doubt that they are in a soundstage somewhere, and not where it seems like they should be. On the whole, the effect is actually used sparingly, but instead of using it during the visceral fight scenes where the action could have masked its poor quality, it happens during the slow moments. That was a huge mistake.

But when all is said and done, I have to say that I liked Seediq Bale. I went in thinking that I would either love it or hate it, simply because of how long is was, but that wasn’t the case. I didn’t love it, and reflecting upon it I still don’t. But I liked it quite a bit. The hardest part was getting myself in the mindset of a four and a half hour movie. It’s not something I can just sit down and do, and I think most people are the same way. But as long as it was and as difficult as it was to get over some of the visual failings, there is a lot of really good stuff in this film. It’s worth getting yourself in the right mindset for. Go see it, and when you get to the other side of the rainbow bridge, maybe we can get face tattoos together.

And by that I mean discuss the movie, because I barely scratched the surface here.

[Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale will be playing at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center on July 4th at 6:00 PM. The film will be presented in two parts with a break in between.]