Oh, Reel-y: Warriors, hipsters, drummers, and Casanovas

Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale 1 & 2
Taiwan, 2011

This past July 4, last Wednesday, I decided to forgo the fireworks for the four-hour long epic Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, the most expensive Taiwanese film of all time. The movie is split into two separate films, The Flag of Sun and The Bridge of Rainbow, which the festival screened back to back. Warriors of the Rainbow tells the true story of the Seediq people, Taiwanese aborigines who fought back against the Japanese after thirty years of oppressive rule; watching this movie somehow seemed fitting on Independence Day.

A brief history:
The Seediq were a tribe of face-tattooed badasses who lived in the mountains of Taiwan. They ran around the woods barefoot like ninja hobbits, hunting deer and boars with bows and rifles. To get their faces inked and to secure their places in the eternal hunting grounds of their afterlives, Seediq warriors went literally headhunting, lopping off enemy heads with their machetes to keep as prizes. When the imperialistic Japanese took control of Taiwan in 1897, they tried to civilize these “savages,” burying their skull trophies, destroying their hunting grounds, shattering their way of life, and degrading them with low-wage manual labor.

Finally channeling Twisted Sister, 300 Seediq warriors, led by their charismatic chief Mona Rudao, staged a brutal rebellion in 1930 in what’s known as the Wushe Incident. Needless to say, this got the undivided attention of the Japanese army, who then unleashed artillery, aerial attacks, as well as poison gas in an attempt to exterminate the Seediq people.

While both movies were impressive feats of filmmaking, I thought the first was a little better executed, due to the latter’s somewhat muddled ending. The Flag of Sun introduces the Seediq people and their unique way of life before the encroachment of the Japanese on their territory. It depicts the oppression they suffered as well as their violent, bloody insurrection during the Wushe Incident. The Bridge of Rainbow continues where the first film leaves off, showcasing the ingenuity, resiliency, and resolve of the Seediq as they try, for as long as they can, to fend off the superior manpower and firepower of the arrogant Japanese and stave off the march of history.

Warriors of the Rainbow reminded me of Soderbergh’s two-part biopic Che in its structure and rivaled Terrence Malick’s The New World in its epic scale and its detailed set. Plot-wise, it has elements of 300 and Avatar, but unlike those films, it’s not terrible. It’s kinda like a Taiwanese The Last of the Mohicans, or even Braveheart, but instead of a crazy anti-Semite running around in face paint, it has a strong cast of aboriginal non-actors with face tats. While the film clearly sympathizes with the Seediq, it portrays them as more than just noble savages, rendering them as real human beings, proud and foolhardy, cruel and complex. The movie’s a devastating and bittersweet portrayal of the inevitability of change, the bloody clash between incompatible cultures as a tribal, hunter-gatherer mode of existence refuses to stand aside for modern civilization.

The international version of this film recuts the original two parts into one two-and-a-half hour film. If, however, you like your epics truly epic, see this movie in all its four-hours-plus glory. Heads will roll.

***

Honey Pupu
Taiwan, 2011

Honey Pupu is the closest thing to an art film that I saw at the NYAFF this year. While they appear to be on opposite ends of the cinematic spectrum, thematically it’s similar to Warriors of the Rainbow. Sure, nobody gets decapitated here, but both films deal with people’s varied reactions to something maddeningly inevitable: change. Whereas the Seediq people faced a complete upheaval in their way of life, the young but weary hipsters of Honey Pupu deal with something more subtle but equally persistent: the furious pace and transience of modern living, where things disappear, seemingly at random.

Honey Pupu loosely tracks the comings and goings of a group of hip urbanites who are all members of a Twitter-esque online site dedicated to things–technology, buildings, people–that have gone missing, been rendered obsolete. Rife with symbolism, gorgeously scored, and shot through with lush imagery, the film is a moody meditation on how we deal with love and loss in a digital world where the only constant is inconstancy.

***

Din Tao: Leader of the Parade
Taiwan, 2012

Inspired by and loosely based on the success of the Jyou-Tian Folk Drum and Arts Group, Din Tao is a feel-good family film that’s currently the unlikely number one hit in Taiwan. While I held initial reservations, my cynicism was replaced with a broad smile by the film’s end, as the credits rolled to footage of the real-life drum troupe crossing the finish line at the Sahara Race.

Din Tao tells the story of A-Tai, a wannabe rocker who returns home from Taipei to find his estranged father’s drum troupe embroiled in a feud with the more successful rival company across town. A-Tai joins his father’s company and promises to beat the other guys. But will the commitment-phobic A-Tai be able to stick with the troupe long enough, overcome his daddy issues, and lead his wary teammates to victory in time?

During the first part of the film, I disappointingly thought that Din Tao was just another take on the classic American underdog comedy, a Taiwanese Drumline meets Dodgeball, complete with the cliched ragtag group of misfits–a wannabe gangster, a flamboyantly gay dancer, and an autistic savant–pitted against the gang of arrogant cool kids across town. As the movie progresses, however, it goes in a direction I didn’t anticipate, but one very fitting for a film that has at its heart a love and respect for Taiwanese culture.

The movie is not really groundbreaking; it certainly reuses a lot of cinematic conventions of this genre: the inspirational montage, the there-all-along love interest, and the mysterious and wise guru. Nevertheless, I appreciated the way the film was uniquely Taiwanese, with its thematic emphasis on familial piety and cooperation over competition and the way it weds the traditional with the new. Sometimes, the question isn’t whether we beat the other guys and come out on top, but how do we honor the past while living in the present.

***

All About My Wife
Korea, 2012

Like Couples, All About My Wife is a top-notch rom com that’s very Western in its sensibilities. And like Couples, it’s a remake, this time of the Argentinian Un Novio Para Mi Mujer. Like Hollywood, Korean cinema loves its remakes, and it handles them with aplomb.

In All About My Wife, Lee Du-Hyeon is losing his mind after seven years of marriage. His formerly sweet wife Yeon Jeong-In now complains nonstop about everything and is an embarrassment in public. Too cowardly to ask for a divorce, he enlists the help of Jang Seong-Gi, the neighborhood lothario, paying him to seduce his wife so that she would leave him of her own accord.

From nebbish husband to neurotic wife and every supporting character in between, the cast is strong, but Ryoo Seung-Ryong steals every scene he’s in as the lauded lady’s man. I last saw him in War of the Arrows, where he led the Manchu archers in breathless pursuit of the protagonist, and here he is no less ardent in his pursuit of Jeong-In. From milking cows to painting stained glass windows to making sand art to quoting Wong Kar-wai films, his Casanova blends sensitive and seductive to hilarious effect. Boys, watch this and take notes.

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