It'd be difficult to find a film where decapitations carry loftier emotional potency than they do in Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, the John Woo-produced historical epic that earned the label of Taiwan's most expensive production to date. Wei Te-Sheng's brutal, enthralling vision of the Wushe Rebellion of the early-'30s recalls the last major push against Japanese forces during the mandatory assimilation of Taiwan's indigenous people, where wars are fought amongst rival sub-tribes and against "civilized" invading outsiders employing modernized tactics. Primitive, guerilla-style warfare through Taiwan's forested corners might seem like an unusual vessel for a comparatively rich budget; yet, the full breadth of those resources can be seen in its enlivening battles and attention to detail, which bring a significant occurrence in Taiwan's history to the screen in captivating fashion. And when heads (and lives) are taken in ceremonious coming-of-age displays, it's hard to resist feeling equal parts unsettled and celebratory.
Comparisons made to Braveheart and The Last of the Mohicans are more than accurate, though, to a point that extends beyond the bubble of mere influence. Warriors of the Rainbow exploits matching notes of tribal conflict, rash motivations, and freedom from domineering oppressors to punctuate the tale of Mona Rudao and his sleeping-giant revolt against the Japanese, yet it starts twenty-years prior in the chieftain's youth, establishing a foundation to the Seediq Bale's way of life. First depicting Mona Rudao as a youthful, newly-crowned leader of a section of the Seediq Bale as a way of revealing the tribe's healthier years, it emphasizes how a boy doesn't become a man -- and doesn't earn his distinctive facial tattoo -- until he claims the head of one of his enemies, giving us a foundation for their proud native roots. We absorb their way of life before the Japanese occupy the land; they hunt, they trade, and they marry, aiming to glorify themselves in the eyes of their gods until they gain entry into the world beyond the rainbow.
Wei Te-Sheng's nimble perspective glides through the Taiwanese forests and villages not unlike that of Dante Spinotti's work in Mohicans, establishing the geography of the Seediq Bale's sprawl of wooded land. Lush greens dominate the image; towering trees and flourishing vegetation provide visually intriguing pathways for the tribesmen to sprint, hide in, and exploit while on the hunt (or in battle). Warriors of the Rainbow understands where the audience's base pleasures reside, and sequences involving this constant movement will make those looking upon it appreciative of both the complexity and earthen beauty in those vigorous sprints through the forests. Wei Te-Sheng also understands the import within the quiet moments that bookend the forest action, composed in resolute angles that accentuate the emotion behind preserving their heritage -- both in conversations and forceful emblematic visuals, such as a tribesman lying atop the skulls of the heads he's claimed.
Then, the Japanese violently occupy and colonize this self-contained Seediq Bale's village, which leads to a twenty-year leap in time -- and to the bread-'n-butter of the film's purposes -- to showcase how forced civilization has constrained their heritage. Once-proud tribesman have been bridled by taking on low-wage logging jobs under the Japanese employ, drinking themselves into a submissive stupor to forget their past freedom, and kowtowing to the threatening presence of their occupiers, all with very little choice in the matter. Mona Rudao himself, now considered something of a powerless "chief", watered himself down to this level as well, even though we see that he's scheming under the nose of the Japanese. The script capably navigates between historical points with a cinematic focus on its varied characters and their reactions, as sympathetic performances from a mostly unknown cast form a mosaic of ways the Seediq Bale mold and transform under oppression: some adapt, some assimilate, some stagnate, and others wait.
Even those with no knowledge of the Wushe Incident will realize a revolt's brewing in the tribesman's anguish, but Wei Te-Sheng gives Warriors of the Rainbow its own tenacity, overcoming what's anticipated with purpose-driven brutality -- especially in the decapitations -- and a firm grasp on the Seediq Bale 's legacy. Bloody, spirited skirmishes spread across the Taiwanese forests once events push them beyond that anticipated threshold; hand-to-hand fights aren't frequent, but the close-quartered battles involving bows-'n-arrows and rifles achieve a similarly tense, erratic manner that spreads across the second half of the film. They're poignant fights too, with historical resonance and immediacy fueling them, where location and circumstance shape the scenes' veracity. Full-fledged battles in the woods offer an advantage to the native Seediq Bale, while warring with the Japanese in the villages -with some of their kind dressed in Japanese kimonos and civilian clothes -- creates grim anxiety over the outcome. And this isn't a piece of work afraid of killing off those caught in the conflict, either.
The surprising thing about Warriors of the Rainbow is that it steers relatively clear of being too heavy-handed in its messages of antiquated freedom, political climate change, and belief in the afterlife, something even the staunchest of historical epics have fallen prey to. In the build-up to the final act, replete with gas bombs, children manning machine guns, and gallivanting towards near-impossible odds, Wei Te-Sheng's vision maintains a moral perspective that doesn't fully topple its balance to the side of the Seediq Bale and Mona Rudao's uprising. Sure, the film's entire point rests behind the unjust conquering and demoralization of these people, but their idealism doesn't come without prices to pay for impulsive decisions, and it's not afraid to reveal that happiness can happen under civilization. A gray area exists there, seen as Mona Rudao walks the length of a war-torn village with furious eyes following his movement. Alas, there's one scene that involves broad ritualistic suicide which, no matter if it's historically accurate or not, displays forced, objectionable expression in an unsettling depiction, a forgivable but pushy maneuver to gut-punch our empathy.
But, man, does it known how to end on a cathartic note. The home stretch of Warriors of the Rainbow reveals the thumbprint that John Woo left on the production, gallantly sprinting through explosions and fisticuffs in the Taiwanese forests in a rush of steadfast valor. Flames billow and mortars soar in true war-film fashion, pivoting on story's historical immediacy as the clash with the Japanese -- and the rival Seediq Bales -- reaches those pertinent boiling points that the story so pointedly alludes to from the start of the Japanese occupation. There's inevitability present in the last moments, however, a collision of William Wallace's final stand, Hawkeye's sprint through the American woods, a bit of Nathan Algren's enervation in The Last Samurai and, yes, hearty dashes of Red Cliff for good measure. Yet, while Wei Te-Sheng's production might ride on the coattails of formula, the tattooed faces of the Seediq Bale, and what they signify, elevate the borrowed framework into something more emotionally commanding than one might expect.
The version of Warriors of the Rainbow being covered here is the 150-minute international cut of the film that made the short list for Best Foreign Language film at the 2011 Academy Awards, which differs from the four-and-a-half cut that originally played in Taiwanese theaters.
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