Warriors of the Rainbow, a story of Taiwan’s aboriginal people

Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale – the most talked about movie in Taiwan – will make its Bay Area debut on Friday, April 27. The movie is a true story about the Seediq tribe’s struggle against Japanese colonial rule in the twentieth century. “The completion of the movie Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale is a combination of idealism and courage… I hope you all can understand by watching it the pride and the touching story of this ethnic group,” said the film’s director Wei Te-sheng. Wei will be present for its San Francisco opening at the AMC Metreon 16 (101 Fourth St. San Francisco) on April 27.

Produced by John Woo, famed for his action movies such as John Travolta’s Broken Arrow and Face-off, the movie contains action sequences that have become Woo’s trademark. In speaking about the film, Woo said, “It awakens us to what has been forgotten in the history on the land of Taiwan. This is an epic film, a truly moving story.”

From comic book to the screen

The film focuses on the Seediq aboriginal tribe living in Wushe (now considered the mountainous area of Nantou County, central Taiwan). The film depicts the tribe’s way of life and the harsh restrictions placed on the tribe’s cultural practices under Japanese colonialism (1895-1945). The subsequent rebellion against Japanese rule was known was the Wushe Incident.

Wei’s interest in making Warriors of the Rainbow began after reading a historic comic book on the incident by Chiu Ruo-long. Deeply touched by what he read, he started to raise money to make the film in 2003, but dropped the idea after not being able to raise sufficient funds. Wei would later focus his attention on making Cape No. 7, which went on to become a box office hit in Taiwan, raking in NT$530 million (US$14.3 million) and becoming the highest grossing Taiwanese film in 2008. After the success of Cape No. 7, Wei decided to rekindle his plans to shoot Warriors of the Rainbow.

Since conceiving the film, it ultimately took Wei 12 years to complete the movie at a cost of NT$700 million (US$23.5 million). The on-location filming took 10 months and made the most of talented professionals from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Singapore. The Seediq tribesmen in the film were all played by aboriginal people consisting mostly of Seediqs. The major Japanese characters were all played by Japanese actors. The important scenes in the film, such as the Japanese-style town in Wushe, were designed by Japanese art director Taneda Youhei according to historic pictures. Fighting action and special effects were choreographed by a team of South Korean experts led by Zhi Yun Li. The music and songs were composed by Singaporean musician Ricky Ho, and performed by the Studio Orchestra of Sydney.

The total running time for the original version is four and half hours, and the screenings were split into two parts when released in Taiwan. However, for its US premiere, the films have been combined and edited down to two and a half hours. English subtitles are provided since the entire film is spoken in Seediq and Japanese with no Mandarin Chinese.

Warriors of the Rainbow won four honors including the Best Feature Film, the Best Supporting Actor, the Best Sound Effects and the Best Original Music at the 2011 Golden Horse Awards, Taiwan’s equivalent to the Oscars. Selected from among 63 films, it was one of the nine films short listed to advance to the next round of voting for the nomination of the Best Foreign Language Films in the 2012 Academy Awards, but did not make the top five. So far the only Taiwanese film to get an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film is Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001). 

The Rainbow Tribe meets the People of Sun

For generations, the Seediq people were one of Atayal tribes living in the Wushe mountains, 3,900 feet above sea level. The Seediq, along with the Atayal and Truku, anthropologically belongs to the Tayal group. More or less isolated, they survived mainly by hunting, and they practiced head-hunting their enemies. In 1895, the Qing Empire of China ceded Taiwan to Japan after being defeated in the Sino-Japanese war. This began Taiwan’s 50 years under Japanese occupation. In order to exploit camphor and timber from the mountains and to build reservoirs in the Wushe mountains, the Japanese forced the Seediq and other aboriginal tribes to alter their age-old way of life. Whereas the tribes had a tradition of head hunting and applying facial tattoos, neither custom was allowed under Japanese rule. They prevented the tribes from hunting for food, and instead forced them towards rice farming, a more labor-intensive form of cultivation. The Japanese also drove a wedge between the indigenous peoples in the region, pitting one tribe against the next in order to weaken resistance against colonialism.

Mona Rudao, one of the leaders in the Seediq tribe, was born in 1882. Young, brave and good at fighting, he became a hero among his tribesmen. Having witnessed 30 years of Japanese oppression, Mona Rudao cultivated a desire to rebel against his colonial masters.  Finally, in 1930, he led over a thousand warriors from six tribes to fight against Japanese police and army in the Wushe mountains. The clashes lasted for more than 40 days.

The title of the film is derived from Seediq, meaning “human,” and Bale meaning “real” or “glorious.” According to the Seediq tradition, young men were given facial tattoos after they had proved themselves to be “real men.” In their culture, they worshiped the rainbow in the belief that their souls would eventually pass the rainbow bridge to the homeland of their ancestors upon death. The tattoos would allow their ancestors to identify those Seediq people who had made contributions to their tribe. Without their facial tattoos, they would become homeless ghosts. The Japanese deprived the rainbow warriors of these traditional customs, sparking a simmering resentment that would eventually bubble over into a violent rebellion against the powerful Japanese authorities.

Conflicting feelings toward the Japanese

Director Wei believes it is not easy to understand the love-hate feelings of the Taiwanese people toward the Japanese. Although Japan created the infrastructure for Taiwan’s modernization, in the film, Wei noted that ultimately “both sides returned to the starting point of hatred.”

He said that the beauty of a rainbow is the juxtaposition of each color in independent co-existence, and each color does not interfere with the others. Wei stressed that the world’s biggest problem, not just in Taiwan, is that each color interferes with the others. He hopes his film will give people a chance to examine the issue of hatred among ethnic groups.

Many people have compared the film to Braveheart starring Mel Gibson. However, Wei’s film does not use the simple dichotomy of “good guys” versus “bad guys” to depict the historical facts, nor sacrifice historical accuracy for dramatic effect.

Lin Ching-tai, whose aboriginal name is Nolay Piho, plays the central protagonist, Mona Rudao. In real life, Lin belongs to the Atayal tribe but does not speak the Seediq language. He had to memorize all his dialogues for the film. Having never acted before, Seediq Bale was his first acting job. He is now serving as a pastor of a Presbyterian Church in Ilan County in northern Taiwan. He said, “The film is full of reviews and reflection. Mona Rudao could have chosen to swallow the tribe’s pride, but by doing so, his tribesmen would have been humiliated. By engaging in the rebellion, the tribe was ultimately eliminated. Fighting harms both the enemy and us.”

As an aborigine, Lin admited that he had felt inferior before, but upon studying at the theological seminary, his feelings for himself and hatred toward society changed. “Now I am serving God. I believe all peoples are equal.”

Obviously,Taiwan and Japan have worked past some of the historical hatred since the Wushe Incident. Six months before the initial screening of the movie in September, 2011, Japan was hit by a devastating earthquake. Taiwanese people rushed to donate to the relief efforts in record numbers. According to the donor list, 93 countries around the world contributed 17.5 billion Japanese yen (US$213 million), while Taiwan single-handedly donated 20 billion Japanese yen (US$250 million). 

Post rebellion

After the Wushe Incident and the near extermination of the Seediq people, only 278 remained, among them, the daughter of Mona Rudao. The survivors were relocated by the Japanese to Kawashima, a village 25 miles from Wushe (now Ren-ai Township, Nantou County). They were placed in further isolation allowing easier control. Fourteen years later, as Japan suffered losses in the Pacific, the Japanese colonial government recruited Taiwanese soldiers. Under the militaristic propaganda, 33 young men from Kawashima voluntarily went to Southeast Asia to fight for Japan. When World War II ended, only eight survived to return home.

In 1945, Japan was defeated and Taiwan was returned to the Republic of China. In 1970, the Taiwan government officially praised the bravery of Mona Rudao and established a monument in honor of the incident at Wushe, the hometown of the Seediq people.

There are currently half a million aborigines in Taiwan, accounting for 2 percent of the total population. Fourteen aboriginal tribes are recognized by the Taiwan government, including the Seediq people. In 1996, the government set up a ministerial-level Council of Indigenous Peoples to promote the rights and welfare of Taiwan’s aborigines. Warriors of the Rainbow is the first film which features the island’s indigenous people.

Taiwan’s film industry is now in a period of renaissance, and more filmmakers are eager to explore the island’s weightier issues, such as national identity and ethnic issues, in their works. More film makers are delving into issues that have greater resonance with domestic audiences. As the London-based Economist magazine claimed, the film’s “message of a unique, empowering Taiwanese identity is unmistakable.”

Before 2008, Taiwanese movies accounted for less than 1 percent of domestic box office sales, but now that total is closer to 15 percent, an amazing jump in such a short time. Seediq Bale premiered in Taiwan in mid-September at the start of the island’s presidential election campaign in 2011 and was quickly seen by both camps, regardless of their tight schedules.

To view the trailer of the film, please link to: .

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