Screened to packed houses at the recent Durban International Film Festival (DIFF), the award-winning Taiwanese historical film, Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, tells a universal story – that of an indigenous peoples’ fight against colonial oppression.
Not only is Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, a truly epic film with sprawling battle scenes and a multitude of authentic spiritual and historical references, it also presented epic challenges in production.
Taiwanese writer and director Te-Sheng Wei spent over two years making the five hour-long film. The international version (released outside Taiwan and Hong Kong) runs at 150 minutes.
A remarkable feature of the film, which recounts the Wushe Incident of 1930 when the aboriginal Seediq tribe in Taiwan rose against Japanese colonial rule, is that all the Seediq characters are played by actual Seediqs, none of whom had ever acted before.
It’s hard to imagine that a comic book could have sparked Wei’s inspiration to make a marathon historical drama but this is indeed the case.
Says Wei: “In the past there have been many films about the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan but they’ve always been sad and sympathetic to the poverty and neglect of the aborigines.
“In 1999 I stumbled upon a comic book based on Wushe and it struck me as a spectacular story. At school I’d only briefly heard about Seediq chief Mouna Rudo, leader of the rebellion, from a mere two lines in a history book.
“Before I read the comic I’d assumed that the Seediq, a clan of fearless hunters and expert weavers, had begged the Japanese for sympathy and assistance. I didn’t realise that the Seediq were an enormously proud people, rooted in their own singular culture and spirituality. It occurred to me that I could write an amazing screenplay about the pride and honour of the Seediq.’
After a period of extensive research Wei wrote the script in two months and spent nearly a decade reviewing it.
Trying to finance a historical period film with extensive battle scenes proved extremely difficult. “I borrowed money and applied for loans,’ continues Wei.
“We received a government subsidy but it was more like encouragement rather than a proper investment. Only in post-production did we attach our first private investor. When I needed capital for production there was no money.’
Wei spent NTD50m – the personal revenue that he accrued from his box office hit Cape No. 7 – on Seediq Bale, but this was only a small dent in the film’s total budget of NTD700m (about R200m). Its revenue from the Chinese language box office market was NTD800m, making it the biggest Taiwanese hit in history.
The Woo factor
Wei notes that he “embarrassingly begged’ for the support of famous Hong Kong action director John Woo. “When Cape No. 7 won at the Golden Horse Awards (Asia’s Oscars), John Woo presented the trophy and someone suggested that we attach him as a producer because of his resources and experience.
“So I asked John to be a producer on the film and he didn’t say yes but he didn’t say no. I sent him the script and he made some suggestions and thereafter visited Taipei several times to talk to us about the film,’ states Wei.
Although Woo never formally agreed to be a producer he is listed in the film’s credits as producer along with Terence Chang and Chih-ming Huang. Wei describes Woo as being very active in the project, albeit unofficially.
Seediq Bale means “a true Seediq’ and that’s exactly what Wei wanted for his film. It took six months to cast the many Seediq characters.
“It’s hard to locate Seediqs because they live deep in the mountains,’ elaborates Wei. “Even when I put audition adverts in the local papers no-one showed up. I literally went from house to house, like a salesman, knocking on doors and sent my team to Seediq social events to take pictures of faces.
“After careful selection we met with them to see if they fit in with the characters. Then we had to convince them to leave their jobs and join us. This was a big task and a huge risk as none of them were actors. Training the cast to act was an even bigger job. We had to identify those who weren’t afraid of expressing themselves and see if they had hunters’ eyes.’
Because the Seediqs were not professional actors Wei employed unorthodox training methods. He used drums to inspire them and increase their sensibility and physical capability.
“We set up an improvisational acting course and tried to make to make them feel a sense of achievement after they finished their scenes. When the Seediqs were on set, in their costumes with tribal tattoos on their faces, they began behaving like their ancestors. No director, however great, can make actors feel that they have truly become their characters,’ notes Wei.
35mm all the way
Seediq Bale’s dazzling cinematography captures the beautiful green hues and filtered light of the Taiwanese forests. Cinematographer Ting-chang Chin shot entirely on 35mm, generally employing two cameras (and occasionally three) for the intricate battle scenes.
Says Wei: “Of course shooting on film is more expensive than digital but for such an epic story I needed the film effect. I think digital is a trend whereas film has irreplaceable charisma. Once you start shooting on celluloid everyone cares because every frame matters.’
Wei worked with a Korean martial arts specialist to choreograph the battle scenes.
“These were not easy as the specialist preferred a more flamboyant style of fighting whereas I was after something more subtle. It took a long time to convince him and come to a compromise,’ comments Wei.
Seediq Bale won three awards at the 2011 Golden Horse Awards, including Best Film. It was also nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival.
By Joanna Sterkowicz
screen africa magazine – september 2012