Thursday, January 17, 2013

Lessons from a Film - Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (2011)

This film is based on true events which occurred in central Taiwan in 1930. The international version was a combination of the two separate films shown in Taiwan which cut down the running time from four-and-a-half hours to two-and-a-half hours. I watched the full version over two sittings: Part I “The Sun Flag” and Part II “The Rainbow Bridge”, and believe this version allows the viewer to engage the story better than the shorter version.

Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale is a dramatization of the events surrounding the Wushe Incident, of which the main focus is the Aboriginal group, the Seediq people of Taiwan. This is a retelling of the rise of the Seediq against Japanese oppression, of which the Seediq where severely outnumbered and outgunned, but left a mark on the history of the land by fighting for their honour and family.

Nowadays, films are objects of intense scrutiny by critics and audiences and the box office result is usually the determinant of the success of a particular film. Regardless of the international response, for a film that emerged out of Taiwan, Seediq Bale is a success in itself, being the most expensive film produced in Taiwan to date. The response to the film in its domestic release was overwhelming, and the vision of the director to bring the story of a little-known part of Taiwan history to the big screen allowed people like me, Taiwanese but ignorant of our history, to appreciate our nation’s past. After seeing the film, I believe the message within the story is the most important aspect of this film, and I hope, in addition to feelings of pride for Seediq Bale as a great cinematic achievement in our nation’s film history, that this message was successfully conveyed to many in the audience.

The Message

The film showed the power of belief and tradition that is embedded within cultures and also the lengths to which people will go to honour their beliefs and to keep their traditions alive, even if, ultimately, the only path to liberation is death. The Seediq believed in the honour and dignity of being true Seediq warriors, and they could not idly sit by and watch the destruction and demeaning of their culture and way of life, instead, even in the face of insurmountable resistance, they would rise and fight to become true warriors and to earn a place with their ancestors in the eternal hunting grounds on the other side of the rainbow bridge.

But is what was done by the Seediq right? The events depicted in the film is not unique to this part of history, and these same themes have reared their heads throughout history during confrontations between indigenous peoples and other more powerful societies that arrive in newly discovered lands and attempt to drive the natives away in order to take the land and its resources for themselves. Bloodshed is often the result of the desperation of the natives, who know no other way to fight back. The Seediq were not considered to be equals by the Japanese, but rather, regarded as savages and treated as little more than slaves. The Japanese attempt to “civilize” the Seediq showed a complete disrespect and disregard for the culture and history of these people, actions that can hardly be considered to be civilised. The Japanese wronged the Seediq, snatching away their homes and hunting grounds, mistreating them and destroying their culture, but other than fighting back, did the Seediq really have another path to freedom?

Other remarks

The acting was remarkable, even more so because the majority of the cast were non-professional actors, who were able to perfect the Seediq dialogue (the speakers of this language are diminishing in number) as well as to accurately portray the hunting and fighting scenes which required immense physical exertion. Through their accurate portrayals of the Seediq, the use of unfamiliar faces allowed a true sense of the departed Seediq to be felt; convincing audiences that they had truly stepped back in time.

Another highlight of the film was the use of traditional Seediq music in the score, which brought to life the rich palette of emotions experienced by the characters. Although the words in the songs may be foreign to most: the meaning of family, the honour of being a true warrior, pride and dignity, the spirits of the ancestors and the liberation of the soul, the simplicity of these lyrics resonate with meaning through the haunting melodies of the Seediq. These are simple yet complex concepts that we seldom contemplate in modern society, and are values and beliefs that cannot be fully comprehended without having experienced the struggles that people like the Seediq lived through.

The scenery in the film was spectacular, showcasing a part of Taiwan that I have not been able to see with my own eyes. I can understand the desperation of the Seediq to defend their hunting grounds and the land that they had occupied for hundreds of years before the arrival of the Han and Japanese.
Of course, the film has its flaws, and one of them is the one-dimensional portrayal of the Japanese. Even though they were not portrayed as monsters, the addition of a few sympathetic Japanese did not fully convince us of the true nature of the Japanese perspective of the events that unfolded. History should not be seen through only one perspective, and the actions of a few should not be used as the foundation of generalisations.

Final thoughts

The film is an epic, action-packed dramatization of true events, while not entirely historically accurate, beneath the bloodshed and ample beheading scenes, a beautiful story is told. Hopeless from the outset, this film tells a tragic story, but reveals the power of belief and the indestructible nature of the human spirit. It is the story of the bravery of a small group of seemingly powerless people uniting and rising up to fight against Goliath for the preservation of their simple, yet fulfilling way of life.

The film teaches us about the true meaning of wealth and the importance of preserving the past and tradition. The true source of wealth for the Seediq was their hunting grounds, the forests, waterfalls, rivers, animals and vegetation, but they did not own the land, and instead they were one with it. The way in which they valued those hunting grounds is different from how we perceive value today, worth much more than what our modern materialistic minds can comprehend. Their rich history and culture, the honouring of their ancestors and the ability to pass these on through generations was valued and what they fought to protect from extinction.

Seediq Bale is in no way a cinematic masterpiece, but the film succeeded in bringing the story of the Seediq to the attention of many, challenging us to reflect upon the morality of the actions of those who lived before us. It teaches us to be tolerant of others, to respect and acknowledge their land, culture and history, and to accept them as equal counterparts within a world which we should peacefully and willingly share. Let this film be a reminder that history should never be repeated, and that savagery against our own kind should never again be witnessed.

The Seediq's only wish was to return to their hunting grounds and their way of life. Their view of death is in no way filled with sorrow; instead it is filled with hope and beauty, as embodied by the words they say as they part:
“May we meet again in the eternal hunting fields on the other side of the rainbow bridge.”

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