Wei Te-sheng’s (魏德聖) Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale is not a documentary, yet it presents a convincing and accurate picture of the Sediq people. The opening scene of the two-hour short version vividly portrays the centrality of hunting territory to their culture. It also gives us the key to understanding them — their headhunter spirituality. Learning from the non-professional actors who became the film’s actors (and so became empowered to live their own history), Wei presents the spirituality of the Sediq people based on the living presence of the ancestors and the ancestral gaya (laws of life).
Living by gaya makes one a seediq bale, or “true human,” entitled to join the ancestors across the rainbow bridge. Without judging or romanticizing, Wei shows how this headhunting spirituality empowers them to resist the Japanese Empire. They know that they are lost in this world even before they start, but that by making their resistance a blood sacrifice to their ancestors, they will achieve their full humanity as they cross the rainbow bridge. Mona Rudao’s question to the Sediq who is a Japanese policeman is central to the movie: When you die, will you go to a Japanese shrine or cross the Rainbow?
If we see Seediq Bale as another “noble savage” tragedy, or “wildly ambitious rumble-in-the-jungle battle epic” (as the review in Variety quips), we are missing the point and will miss the full power of this satisfying action epic, which does deliver all the action any teenage moviegoer could desire.
Wei’s choice to do this exciting film in the Sediq language was courageous and profoundly significant. There are only a few thousand people who know Sediq well enough to understand the dialogue. Indeed many of his actors, including his Mona Rudao (Lin Ching-tai, 林慶台) are Atayal, who speak a related but different language. His choice to do this and not have his actors speak in Mandarin Chinese, is not just reaching for authenticity. Wei shows his deep respect for and solidarity with Taiwan’s Aborigines, deliberately risking commercial success for the goal of what this movie can do for their future.
Seediq Bale will prove to be a significant milestone in the ongoing revival of Aboriginal culture in Taiwan. It should inspire many young Aborigines to really learn their mother tongue and to see themselves for the first time as agents of history, not just the subjects of others’ histories.
I had the privilege of taking the two young actors Wei brought with him — Sediq Tian Jun (田駿) and 15-year-old Atayal Lin Yuan-jie (林原傑) — to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto to see the Atayal artifacts brought from Taiwan by George Leslie Mackay in 1893. I assumed that having seen these, they would then be most interested in the museum’s dinosaurs. To my surprise, they could not get enough of the Indigenous Peoples of the World and Canadian First Nations galleries — they wanted to see and ask about everything indigenous. I suspect that making this movie heightened their own consciousness of their Aborigine culture. I believe many Aborigines in Taiwan will experience the same process of renewed self-awareness watching Seediq Bale.
Nobody is really satisfied with the two-hour international version of the four-hour Seediq Bale, least of all Wei himself. The problems are evident — the lack of bridging scenes that moderate the relentless violence of the war and the lessened empathy we feel having missed the development of the character of Mona Rudao from his childhood, and the time to enter into their spirituality gradually. The opening scene is a brilliant summing up of that culture, but its meaning is probably lost on viewers who have not had the joy of already knowing Sediq people and their Atayal and Truku cousins.
I look forward to seeing the full movie. There have been commercially successful four-hour movies, Gone with the Wind for one, shown with an intermission. It is tragic that Taiwan’s richly diverse and constantly creative culture suffers from a lack of confidence that Seediq Bale — its full humanity — will win the applause of the world on its own terms.
Wei and film coproducer John Woo (吳宇森) should say with Mona Rudao: “Let’s do it.”
The Reverend Michael Stainton is an anthropologist associate of the York University Centre for Asian Research in Canada. He spent many years as a missionary working and living with Taiwan’s Aborigines and is currently president of the Taiwanese Human Rights Association of Canada. His Atayal name is Payas.