CINEMA: by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
The terrifying truth of the Noble Savage
, September 29, 2012
Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (rated MA) is reviewed by Symeon Thompson.
Apocalypto meets Braveheart in the Taiwanese jungle in the superb Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, produced by John Woo and directed by Wei Te-Sheng, and based on true events.
The movie is a visceral and violent masterpiece that explores a crucial event in Asian history, the Wushe incident in central Taiwan in 1930.
The imperial Japanese have invaded Taiwan and subjugated the locals, including the fierce aboriginal headhunting tribes known as the Seediq Bale, seeking to “civilise” them and make use of the rich natural resources of the region.
The film begins with the son of the chief of one of the tribes Mona Rudao (Da-Ching) claiming his first “head” from a rival tribe. After his nuptial celebrations, it is shown that the Japanese have decided to conquer the island and make use of its rich forests and mines. This they do, despite the valiant, and violent, efforts of the Seediq.
Twenty years later and the once proud “savages” have been reduced to almost-slave labour, turning to drink to drown their dishonour, and struggling to maintain something of their way of life, while the Japanese enforce upon them civilisation.
Mona Rudao (Lin Ching-Tai in a steely portrayal of the once headstrong young man), while still possessing great presence and influence amongst his people, seems a broken man otherwise, humiliated by the dishonour of his defeat. But when a Japanese police officer refuses an offer of wine at a wedding and gets into a fight with some of the younger Seediq, it finally spurs Mona Rudao to orchestrate and lead a violent rebellion against the Japanese.
This film is quite visceral, violent and confronting. The culture it depicts clearly shows the lie of Rousseau’s “Noble Savage”. These savages are quite noble and quite bloodthirsty and there is much talk of making blood sacrifice so that they can meet their ancestors and save their souls. Some scenes, particularly concerning the actions of the women, are especially heartbreaking.
The cinematography is fantastic, with a touch of magic realism. There are shades of Werner Herzog’s scintillating and surreal first film with Klaus Kinski, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, as well as the inevitable references to Mel Gibson’s jungle epic Apocalypto and his paean for the freedom of rebellious regional cultures, Braveheart.
The soundtrack is similarly sharp, with a wide-ranging and rich usage of traditional instruments and music, undercut only by the saccharine pseudo-Western strings that seem popular in Asian epics.
This is very much a man’s movie with constant beheadings and beatings and shootings and grand set-piece battle scenes. The Seediq fight with an intelligent intensity against a force that massively out-matches them, and their life is grisly and focussed upon the blood sacrifice that will save their souls.
Despite this focus on gore, the film poignantly portrays the lives of people who have not yet been overrun by industrialisation and capitalism. It shows such lives for what they are and would be, not what academic Western audiences want them to be. It shows the terrible beauty of a life lived in accord with the Natural Law, a life that is marked both by savagery and serenity, a life that is honourable because it cannot but be honest.
There are shades of Greek tragedy in all this, showing the universality of the pre-Modern soul. The Seediq are like some sort of avenging angel of death, masculine Eumenides wreaking havoc upon the invaders who have disrespected them, knowing full well that it will end with their own deaths.
This is the crucial thing, so seemingly inexplicable to us modern sophisticates, that, for the headhunters, their rebellion is not so much about overthrowing the Japanese occupiers, but offering a blood sacrifice that they might wash themselves clean of the myriad ways they have betrayed their ancestors. These are a people for whom honour comes first, like the heroes of Homer at Ilion.
Sadly, the film available in cinemas, like John Woo’s incredible Red Cliff, is a truncated “international cut” of a two-part epic, and so, should probably not be seen as much more than an estimate of the true film.
Apparently there are certain discrepancies from the facts in this historical epic, but not so much as to undermine the main mythos. For those interested, the film’s consultant has written a book discussing them.
Warriors of the Rainbow shows the awe-inspiring, terrifying truth of the Noble Savage, as a man keenly in touch with the spiritual aspects of reality, and much more sophisticated than he is given credit for.
As the Japanese general remarks at the end of the film, the Seediq possessed the true spirit of bushido, of the warrior for whom warcraft is not merely an exercise in probabilities and mechanisms, but a vocation and way of life, for the saving of one’s soul.