Thursday, November 17, 2011

Fortissimo Films at MoMA: Warriors of the Rainbow—Seediq Bale

For the aboriginal peoples indigenous to Taiwan, decapitating an enemy’s head in battle was an essential rite of manhood. In the early Twentieth Century, the occupying Japanese began the systematic suppression of aboriginal culture. It cost them a whole lot of heads though. Originally well over four hours long, Wei Te-sheng’s Warriors of the Rainbow: Sediq Bale (trailer here) is exactly the sort ambitious personal vision Fortissimo Films has a reputation for supporting. Appropriately, the two and a half hour international cut opened In Focus: Fortissimo Films, MoMA’s tribute to the influential film company.

Mouna Rudao was one of the fiercest Seediq warriors ever. When the Japanese confiscate his collection of skulls, they are duly impressed. Unfortunately, as chief he must watch as the old ways atrophy under their oppressive rule. The tattoos of manhood are becoming scarce. However, that all changes with the 1930 Wushe Uprising.

It started with a misunderstanding between Mouna’s family and the local Imperial authorities, snowballing from there. The Seediq forces strike first, ambushing the Japanese at a major sporting exhibition. Things only get bloodier thereafter. Frankly, Mouna knows their revolt is doomed to fail, but at least the young Seediq men will die as warriors, crossing over the Rainbow Bridge to their equivalent of Valhalla.

Submitted by Taiwan as their official foreign language Academy Award candidate, Rainbow will be released as two films in most Asian markets. However, the edited and cobbled together international version makes perfect sense from a narrative standpoint and includes plenty of Braveheart style action. One suspects the axe fells disproportionately heavily on the female cast, including the great Vivian Hsu, who are rarely seen in the 150 minute cut until a devastating scene late in the picture.

It is too bad Mel Gibson went more or less insane, because he would have been the perfect celebrity “presenter” for Rainbow. There are death-scenes that will make you exclaim out loud. Yet, despite the frequent references to the Rainbow Bridge, there is little mystical or New Agey about the film, at least in its international configuration. It also resists the temptation to glorify Seediq traditionalism, unequivocally suggesting tribalism undermined their efforts to defeat the Imperial Japanese with a united front.

Lin Ching-Tai is all business as the steely old Mouna. He might just the best middle-aged action hero since the Eastwood of decades ago. Yet, young Lin Yuan-Jie might be the most engaging member of the cast. There is absolutely nothing cute or cloying about his riveting work as Pawan Nawi. Japanese actor Sabu Kawahara also somehow manages to elevate the role of the stereotypically severe General Kamada Yahiko, while Chie Tanaka is memorably vulnerable as the wife of a somewhat sympathetic officer.

Rainbow parallels the pronounced trend in recent Mainland and Hong Kong films to depict Japanese characters in explicitly villainous terms. Indeed, the impulse constantly refight WWII is becoming rather suspicious. Be that as it may or may not be, there is no denying Rainbow delivers the epic action goods. This is a big, bloody picture, worth serious consideration for the foreign language Oscar and a perfect example of the bold filmmaking fostered by Fortissimo. One hopes the full epic will soon be shown in New York (it seems a logical fit for next year’s NYAFF), but for now, the international cut is definitely recommended when it screens again this Sunday (11/20) at MoMA.