(Opens Apr 27 at the AMC Metreon 16 in San Francisco and the AMC Cupertino 16 in Cupertino.)
By Richard von Busack
Likely you’ve heard the Tolstoi parable about how when a person goes to heaven, God checks their hands for calluses to see if they’ve worked hard for a living. Wei Te-Sheng’s massive and ultra-violent epic Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale tells a version of this fable. It’s a story of the Seediq indigenous people of the highlands of Taiwan. Supposedly when these fighters cross the rainbow bridge to their Valhalla, their ancestors check their hands to make sure the blood of their enemies is on them.
In the 1890s, Imperial Japan received Taiwan from China, and introduced roads and logging. The upland aborigine nations, who had been in blood feuds with each other forever, united with their old foes against the new invaders. Such was the Wushe Incident of 1930. It was modern war versus iron-age peoples armed with swords, bows and spears: apparently, the Japanese even dropped poison gas from biplanes on the natives.
Mouna Rudo (played by an Atayal tribesman named Lin Ching-Tai) is the fiercest of the aborigines, though his spirit is injured from insults and alcohol. Lin’s performance gives this greatly oversized film a core; he looks as impressive with his pipe as MacArthur did. It seems Lin is a pastor as well as an actor; likely he can put a serious fear of hellfire into his congregation.
All the usual routines you’d rather not see in a film about the US Army and Indians are easier to take in this film’s context: the cravenness or viciousness of the soldiers; the certainty in the Hunting Ground to come, suggested by a heavenly visit from Rudo’s dead father…even the film’s apology for head-hunting as a sacred duty, an honor to both killer and killed.
At first, director Wei makes this a rousing history of war in the cloud forests; the physicality of the warriors is like the best parts of Mann’s Last of the Mohicans. After an hour and a half of the tremendously graphic battle scenes, you’ve seen enough; it must be the influence of co-producer John Woo to keep escalating matters past the exhaustion point. And composer Ricky Ho’s chorale-heavy threnodies repeat themselves more than the machine guns.