Film Review: Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale

Taiwanese natives battle occupying Japanese forces in a doomed uprising. Exciting if exhausting account of a real-life incident.

Ambitious and often stirring, Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale revisits a native uprising against Japanese forces on Taiwan in the early 20th century, a historical event that is largely unknown in this country. Despite its ultimately upbeat message, the film is a long and demanding account of injustice on a massive scale.

Opening scenes introduce the Seediq people as a group of warring clans living in the mountains of Taiwan. When China cedes the island to Japan in the late 1880s, the Seediq are essentially enslaved by occupying forces, who force the men to mine and lumber for starvation wages.

Early attempts at rebellion are met with harsh reprisals, convincing tribal leaders like Mouna Rudo (Lin Ching-tai) to cooperate with the Japanese. But the Seediq believe that death in battle is the only way to join their ancestors across the rainbow bridge in the afterlife. When Mouna realizes that a new generation of Seediq are losing ties to tradition, he calls for a revolt against the Japanese.

Because of their history of distrust and dissension, only six of the twelve Seediq tribes join Mouna's Mehebu clan. An educated warrior familiar with Japanese ways, Mouna prepares an elaborate plan to attack several garrisons at once, isolating Japanese soldiers and cutting off their communication to the port.

Mouna and his followers attack Wushe, an interior fort and trading post, during a Japanese sports holiday, catching the soldiers off-guard. The Seediq overwhelm the village, massacring soldiers and obtaining guns and ammunition before retreating into the forest.

Mouna uses guerrilla tactics against the Japanese who pursue them, with mountains and rivers putting their enemies at a disadvantage. When the fighting intensifies, women and children remove themselves from their villages, many committing suicide so the Seediq warriors won't be distracted from their goals.

But the Seediq are defenseless against the superior weapons employed by the Japanese, including mortars, airplanes and poison gas. After 50 days of battle, only 300 Seediq warriors survive. They are forced to relocate and still have never been able to return to their tribal homelands.

Writer-director Wei Te-sheng brings energy and conviction to a story that spreads out over decades, finding an anchor to the film in the performance of Lin Ching-tai as Mouna Rudo. Lin is rock-solid as a chief who knows he is leading his people into a suicidal cause, and he receives strong support from a large cast of Seediq warriors. The Japanese characters are more caricatured, either militaristic generals shrieking at their men or sniveling clerks who abuse the Seediq.

The film's frequent battle scenes are terse and brutal, although it's difficult at times to figure out where and when the fighting is taking place. Warriors of the Rainbow doesn't provide much of a political or economic context to its story. Basically, the Japanese are bad and the Seediq are good, although Wei is canny enough to point out the violence inherent to Seediq culture. In other words, if they weren't fighting the Japanese, they would be fighting each other.

Warriors of the Rainbow
would be a worthy film if only for uncovering another example of wartime brutality. But Wei Te-sheng's fierce vision is admirable in its own right.