Early on in Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, a boy promises Mouna Rudo (played here by Da Ching and later by Lin Ching-Tai) that, once he’s grown up, he’ll cut Mouna’s head off. “You won’t have the chance to grow up,” Mouna responds. The aborigine culture to which he belongs has been made to answer every question with violence (no matter the end, it’s always the means)—and words, when they’re spoken at all, are used to enhance that violence rather than deter it. Lyrical voiceovers set to battle scenes are not, as in many a war film, used to juxtapose man’s brutality with his capacity for self-reflection; they’re there to justify that brutality. “When a man opens his hands,” begins a piece of inherited folklore, “we see bloodstains that can never be wiped clean.” This, the aborigine ancestors assure us, is the sign of a real man. (“Seediq bale” translates to “real Seediq,” Seediq being the name of the tribe; such violence as the kind on display here is therefore implied, if not promised, by the film’s very title.) Writer-director Wei Te-Sheng’s war epic depicts more decapitations, triggered rockslides, and arrow-ridden corpses than can easily be counted, sometimes all of it underscoring one guiding principle: This is how those with their backs to the wall are forced to respond.
And while there’s certainly a nationalist bent to all this (the film depicts a Taiwanese struggle for independence from Japan in the 1930s almost entirely from the perspective of the former), for the most part Wei manages to avoid jingoism. Not that I imagine it would affect most Western audiences’ viewing experience if it did: As with the subject of the decidedly less action-oriented City of Life and Death, the Wushe Incident isn’t exactly covered in freshman-year history class—not that it shouldn’t be. Foreknowledge of the precise events on display is hardly a necessity, so intent is Wei on letting us know the gory details of how it all went down. All of this is meant to be taken very seriously, including the title; as anyone with a passing interest in Norse mythology knows, even rainbows connote death in the right context. Which is fine for the most part, but less so when the film devolves into silliness. It’s meant to be a sort of Taiwanese Last of the Mohicans, but unlike that film, the bombast doesn’t always feel anchored or even apropos of the subject matter. No matter: The epic, seemingly never-ending battle sequences are the main draw here and, subtlety be damned, they offer much in the way of visceral thrills.
As with John Woo’s Red Cliff, the Oscar-shortlisted Warriors of the Rainbow (which Woo produced) is reaching American shores in a truncated version of its original five-hour length. There’s nary a dull moment throughout the film’s 150 minutes, but more impressive than its kinetic pacing is the fact that it doesn’t feel nearly as fractured as its abbreviated runtime might suggest. Between its frequent delivery of ancestral lore via narration and song, beautifully choreographed set pieces, and sweeping score, the film makes it easy enough to ignore the one-sidedness of its approach and simply go with the flow. It may not reach the lofty ideological heights it’s reaching for or even work as much more than a (self-)righteous actioner, but there’s something to be said about a two-and-a-half-hour epic that manages to make each of its countless decapitation scenes feel earned, even called for, in the moment.