Released in Asia as a two-part epic running almost five hours with an intermission to assist with the inevitable bum-numbing, Warriors Of The Rainbow: Seediq Bale comes to North America in a two and a half hour cut that sheers things down to the absolute basics. In theory, that should be a good thing, offering a highlight reel of the largest production ever attempted in Taiwan. In practice, that’s sadly not quite the case. Filled with massive battle sequences (extended in slow-mo in a nod to John Woo’s executive producer credit) and awkwardly truncated dialogue scenes that barely connect together, it’s a bizarre mishmash that almost feels like it’s projected by a violence obsessed teen hitting the fast-forward button whenever a character speaks and slowing the movie down to linger on every moment of bloodshed. The film might have broken the record for the most decapitations in a single movie, yet without much of interest going on beyond the head-chopping, it all gets quite boring quite quickly. It’s not common to leave a war film wishing that there had been less of a focus on the war, so I suppose that counts as a dubious achievement of sorts.
Part of the reason why this cut of the movie fails with the action-first approach is that it’s based on a true story that should in some way be inspiring or even (here comes a dirty word in action movieland) educational. It’s about the native Seediq Taiwanese tribesman who were occupied and repressed by Japanese colonizers for decades. Elders were forced to work as cheap labor and subside on even cheaper wine while children were forced into camps that stripped them of their native culture and language. Eventually the cultural repression proved to be too much and Mouna Rudo led an uprising against the Japanese. A successful battle was quickly followed by a slaughter when the Japanese army retaliated with machine guns and planes that the indigenous warriors couldn’t compete against. The story is presented as a sort of Taiwanese Last of the Mohicans-by-way-of-Braveheart, complete irritatingly pat inspirational speeches before battle and incredibly one-note evil Japanese villains offered little characterization beyond a vicious hatred for the Seediq people.
It’s all historical drama 101 stuff, made all the more obvious by the stripped down editorial approach of this cut. These types of movies are designed for sprawling ensemble casts and Warriors of the Rainbow is no exception, however with minimal plot allowed to slip in between battles, it’s hard to ever get a grasp on who all the characters are beyond the brooding leader Mouna Rudo (Lin Ching-Tai). There’s a scene in which a Seediq tribesman tries to save a Japanese solider who has been kind to his people and while we should care about that plight, having only seen the solider walk next to the locals a couple times and smile, it’s kind of meaningless. Instead, the film just piles atrocity onto atrocity with interchangeable Japanese characters behaving terribly towards indistinguishable Seediqs until a violent response is the only possible option. Without an understanding of who these characters are beyond Seediq = good and Japanese = bad, it’s hard to be moved by the misery on display beyond surface shocks. At one point a mass suicide occurs and it should be a devastating sequence. Unfortunately none of the characters involved were even introduced before that moment, so it makes little impact beyond the obvious bummer of watching that many people off themselves at once.
Despite the substantial problems with this version of the film, Warriors Of The Rainbow: Seediq Bale is an undeniably impressive spectacle. Awarded the largest budget in Taiwanese filmmaking history and somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 extras, the battle sequences offer an incredible combination of scale and execution. Sure, the CGI rocks and a planes look like they were animated by Roger Corman, but marshalling hundreds of actors into a vicious battle isn’t easy and director Te-Shang Wei used his considerable resources to stage some truly epic sequences designed to fill the largest of screens with bouncing heads. Maybe with the extended version filling in all the narrative gaps and providing even a hint of characterization these sequences wouldn’t become so exhausting or repetitive. It’s difficult to say, but judged purely on the international cut, Warriors Of The Rainbow: Seediq Bale feels like a 2.5 hour trailer and a show reel for the Taiwanese action choreography industry.