Thu, Mar 08, 2012 - Page 8 News List

‘Seediq Bale’ and pride in Taiwan

By Ian Inkster

Much has been said of the great film Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale. This writer has just seen the long, two-part version at Greater Kaohsiung’s marvelous Shrchiuan Theatre. Through the writing and direction of Wei Te-sheng (魏德聖) and the vivid techniques of John Woo (吳宇森) and Jimmy Huang (黃志明), combined with the astounding acting of a great array of brilliant yet non-professional ethnic actors, about five hours of film serve to depict the background and incidents of the Wushe Incident in central Taiwan in 1930.

It is true that I have a professional interest in Taiwanese history, that my wife is a teacher and that the doctoral student who accompanied us is researching the field of the Aborigine experience in Formosa from the early 19th century. Nevertheless, there is no doubt of the aesthetic and entertainment value of this film. It is brilliant in its depiction of mountain and forest Formosa, wonderful in its capacity to thrill and shock an audience and genuine in its determination to rescue Aboriginal history.

The film has been loved as well as critiqued by many people, none of whose arguments I wish to rehearse here, except to add my voice to those who say “go see this film now” before it is swallowed up by its own short version produced for Western consumption, which has yet to be released commercially.

However, I do want to revisit the notion that the film presents a clear and overt political message. This is history and the past is strange and subtle.

Critics have somewhat neglected some problematic features of the manner in which key Taiwanese identities are characterized. The film might give an impression of Aboriginal cultural and physical decline under the Japanese that is somewhat false in that the 1930 conflict occurred at the end of a long, intermittent yet effective Aboriginal opposition to the Japanese, this itself preceded by an even longer armed resistance against the West (especially the 17th-century Dutch colonists) and the Chinese.

Again, the position of women is somewhat simplified. Assuming some accuracy in the scenes of suicide and the abject subjugation of the starving womenfolk, it should at least be noted that there is much evidence of independence and the high status of women in Atayal — whom the Sediq had previously been classified as — and related Aboriginal cultures, and early evidence of women engaged in fighting to the death, and at times using firearms. Unlike many Malay indigenous societies of that time, they were often chiefs and priestesses and were fully equal to their menfolk in celebration of victory through dance, in feasting, drinking and smoking.

More importantly in terms of political meanings, a repeated note has been struck concerning the film’s seeming celebration of Taiwanese nationalism. Let me question this. The few Chinese depicted in the film come off almost as badly as the stylized Japanese. It is perfectly proper to portray the Japanese as rather stupid and ineffective, for through Atayal eyes and voice around 1930 that is precisely what they were. However, the rather dismissive depiction of Taiwanese Chinese at the frontier of west and east is another matter; it is fairly accurate and it throws wholesale doubt on Taiwanese nationalist claims to this story and to this film.

The previous masters of Formosa, the Qing Empire, had only in the later stages of their rule made any attempt to bring in the Aborigines of the island in a manner at once efficient and humane. It might be argued that by 1895, when Japan humiliated the Qing Empire in warfare, the Qing were no longer in any position to support Taiwanese Aborigines. However, this can hardly be claimed for the many years since the time of Dutch colonization (1624-1661).

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