A violent anti-Japanese uprising from Taiwan’s aboriginal past is recounted with bombast and brutality in “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale.” The most expensive production in Taiwanese history (budgeted at around $25 million), this wildly ambitious rumble-in-the-jungle battle epic arrives bearing so heavy a burden of industry expectations, one wishes the results were less kitschy and more coherent; still, the filmmaking has a raw physicality and crazy conviction it’s hard not to admire. Anticipation is running high for writer-director Wei Te-sheng’s follow-up to “Cape No. 7” (2008), though whether it matches that feel-good local smash commercially remains to be seen.
Pic will be released locally mid-September in a two-part, four-hour version that could conceivably play better than the unfocused and protracted 155-minute international cut that world-premiered at Venice. Admittedly, Wei has not chosen a subject that invites subtlety. With an able crew and an extensive cast of half-naked non-pro actors at his disposal, the director applies himself to a meticulous re-creation of the circumstances surrounding the little-known 1930 Wushe Incident, in which Seediq leader Mouna Rudo and his followers launched a mighty attack on their Japanese oppressors, who responded with equally deadly force.
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Opening scenes and later flashbacks limn the early years of Mouna Rudo (played as a youngster by Da Ching), shown receiving the fierce-looking facial tattoos that, in Seediq culture, mark a boy’s transition to manhood and the rank of tribal warriors known as the Seediq Bale. It’s one of many local traditions and customs threatened by Japanese occupiers since their 1895 takeover of Taiwan, after which they launched an immediate and ruthless campaign of suppression against the island nation’s aboriginal people.
But Mouna Rudo (played as an adult by imposing first-timer Lin Ching-tai, quite a find) means to mobilize his people into action — not something easily managed, given the internecine clan rivalries and the Japanese soldiers’ demoralizing efforts to civilize these “savages.” On Oct. 27, 1930, Mouna Rudo and more than 300 rebel warriors execute a massive, take-no-prisoners strike on a Japanese school-sports event, initiating a protracted bloodbath that seems to continue uninterrupted on both sides until the film’s sad yet heroic conclusion.
In terms of recent epic cinema, the primitive warfare in “Warriors of the Rainbow” recalls that of “Apocalypto,” minus Mel Gibson’s sense of pacing and technique. Impressive as the physical production is in terms of Wei’s ability to marshal resources during a reportedly difficult seven-month shoot, it evinces little sense of discipline at any level. The chaotic combo of hard-slamming edits, gory mayhem and Ricky Ho’s forever-hemorrhaging score makes the picture simply exhausting to watch over the long haul.
Yet if there’s little rhythmic modulation, there’s an impressive degree of variation and anthropological detail in the weaponry and fighting techniques, from the numerous implied decapitations (the Seediq’s chief m.o.) to the guerrilla assaults in the tropical terrain they know so well. Their enemies, for their part, respond not only with bullets but also mortar and gas attacks.
Though it doles out setpieces and narrative details with an often clumsy hand, “Warriors of the Rainbow” is surprisingly even-keeled in its depiction of the Japanese, who are portrayed as properly barbarous but never descend into comic villainy. One moment, in which a Japanese soldier who has treated the Seediq honorably lets loose with a monologue extolling his race’s superiority, comes close to lending the picture some much-needed complexity.
But at the end of the day, Wei means to erect a cinematic memorial to the nobility and selflessness of a lost culture, and his uncompromising plunge into obscure tribal lore, mysticism and ritual is sincere enough to command attention. During the Wushe rebellion, more than 100 Seediq women hanged themselves to free their husbands from having to take care of them, a sacrifice acknowledged here with genuinely moving impact.
On a less sobering note, the occasional shots of CGI rainbows — that title is unfortunately literal — send the film momentarily spiraling into camp. F/x work is generally substandard throughout, cheapening the film’s otherwise highly authentic look and exceptionally vivid location work.