Written by Yao-hung Huang.
The Taiwanese director Wei De-Sheng burst onto the international scene over a decade ago with his critically acclaimed musical drama Cape No. 7. The movie was an unexpected box office success, and saw Wei held up as a beacon of hope for Taiwan’s beleaguered film industry. Nonetheless, Cape 7 came under fire in some quarters for painting the legacy of Japanese colonial rule in a positive light. While it arguably announced Wei’s arrival on the global stage, at home it saw him pigeonholed on one side of an increasingly fractious debate about Taiwanese identity.
However, Wei’s second film, the violent historical drama Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (2011), was very different in both its tenor and theme. Its primary focus was a small Taiwanese aboriginal nation’s battle against Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945). Its key characters, moreover, included figures that had been valourised as patriotic heroes in earlier post-colonial era literature. Whereas Cape 7 was accused of promoting a colonial mentality, Warriors of the Rainbow was subject to criticism for promoting parochial nationalism.
These apparent contradictions reveal that Wei’s films are not shaped by a particular political agenda. They do reflect, however, his penchant for exploring the island’s repressed histories. Both films adopt different approaches to expose hitherto hidden stories and confront traumatic memories – in particular those at the source of the intergenerational trauma affecting Taiwanese aboriginal communities. Wei’s movies in this sense approach the roots of ongoing anxieties about Taiwanese culture, identity and national unity.
This struggle with trauma and identity is particular apparent in Warriors of the Rainbow. The Seediq Bale nation is shown to have a worldview and collective self-identity that rests on a strong sense of interconnectedness. This permeates their beliefs and values, such as their respect for ancient trees and the power of nature, and their obedience to their deceased ancestors. Of particular importance is the principle of gaya – which dictates that common ancestry obliges a commitment to common activities and collective welfare. Guided by the tenets of gaya, Seediq Bale people are taught to treat each other with respect, and to extend this respect to the ‘other’, including trees, birds, and animals. An example of this is that the Seediq Bale held that the spirit of their ancestors lived on in trees and the Sisin, the sacred bird which sings the song of their ancestors. Through gaya, the Seediq Bale had a way to negotiate their separateness, confront the unfamiliarities of others and otherness, and cope with loss, isolation and death.
The film shows that after Japan’s colonization of Taiwan, the Seediq Bale were forced to abandon their observance of gaya, which the Japanese administration regarded to be uncivilised. This in turn evoked a crisis of identity and a profound loss of meaning for the Seediq Bale people. In Wei’s film we see that this existential crises was not limited to individuals who dwelled at this culture’s peripheries, but was experienced collectively by the entire Seediq Bale nation. Through the erosion of gaya, a key unifying cultural element – one which had for so long propelled this people to honor their ancestors and live as one with nature – began to lose its power to unite and define a people and a community. Looked down upon by the Japanese, and faced with their failure to protect their gaya and territory, the Seediq Bale were left with few means to reassert their identity and rediscover their dignity.
A key moment in the film was when Muna Rudo, the Seediq Bale’s chief, was shown lamenting this state of affairs to Dakis Nobing, a young Japanese educated Seediq Bale man who worked for the colonial administration as a police officer and teacher. When Dakis Nobing told Muna Rudo that the Japanese had brought many advantages to his people, including better health, technology and the conveniences of the modern world, Muna Rudo refuted him by stressing that his people had instead become alcoholics, servants and slaves. Subject to harassment and mistreatment by Japanese officials, and bereft of their gaya, the Seediq Bale lost both their meaning for living and their prospects for salvation, for while they remained unable to enter Japanese temples, they had to sacrifice their prospects of ascending their own Rainbow Heaven. According to the prescriptions of gaya, men can only pass the rainbow when blood stains their hands and tattoos mark their faces, while women also needed to have facial tattoos and be skilled at weaving. Japanese colonization brought an end to these traditions, and their loss intensified the tribe’s descent into a state of hopelessness, dislocation and despair.
The tragedy of being caught between two identities and cultures was captured most poignantly in Wei’s depiction of two Japanese-educated Seediq Bale figures: Dakis Nobing and Dakis Nawi. Both were taken under the wing by the Japanese with the hope that they would serve as model Japanese-Seediq citizens and a bridge between the two cultures. However, both struggled to bridge this divide. The downfall of the Seediq Bale seemed to have the most profound impact upon Dakis Nobing. Nobing graduated from a Japanese university, but was discriminated against and employed at a very low paygrade. He ended up choosing the career of a teacher rather than a policeman so that he could avoid taking sides in conflicts between his people and his colleagues/employers. However, Nobing was ultimately rejected by both sides – for being a half-civilised barbarian in the eyes of the Japanese, and alternatively, a traitor to his people. Unable to fight for or against either side, Nobing felt his only means to escape the escalating conflict was to commit Japanese ritual suicide (hari-kari). Before his death, his only friend, Dakis Nawi, told him that doing so was the only way to discard both identities to have a new existence.
In relation to modern debates on Taiwanese identity, it is clear that Wei’s Warriors of the Rainbow refuses to take the safe option of promoting feel-good myths about national character, cultural resilience and ethnic unity. In particular, it discards the black and white, sanitised narrative of colonial exploitation and patriotic heroes that were traditionally applied to the Seediq Bale story in earlier post-colonial Taiwanese literature. In their place, Wei revisits a more complex and disturbing past – an origin story of intergeneration trauma and still-festering wounds in the national psyche. Where early post-colonial era films promoted a hopeful promise of a new pan-Chinese nationalism, Wei sees the unearthing of repressed memories and disclaimed identities as an essential starting point for remedying the lingering pathologies tied into Taiwan’s modern struggles with its identity and past.
This approach works particularly well given that key figures in this film were Taiwanese aboriginals, which have also had key roles in Wei’s other films. Former depictions of aboriginals in Taiwanese literature and film have generally been one dimensional, shifting between the romanticised figure of the patriot-soldier, to the barbaric ‘other’ who must never be reawakened. Wei’s films, on the other hand, delves into the complexities and conundrums of Taiwanese aboriginal identity by breaking apart both these received narratives. Wei’s characters are aborigine but are not ‘othered’ as they often had been – they are relatable to a broader audience thanks to his attention to their ambivalences, failings and the conundrums they manufacture in the face of unfamiliar and almost impossible circumstances. Wei’s genius in this regard lies in his unique ability to enhance historical empathy – to whisk the audience away from the safety of a fixed sense of self, separated from the events depicted, and place them into the vortex of ruthless historical forces where they feel compelled to internalise the struggles with identity, mourning and bewilderment of the figures depicted.
Yao-hung Huang is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Foreign Languages and Cultures, Fo Guang University, Taiwan.