Want action? In the opening scene of Wei Te-Sheng’s historical epic Warriors Of The Rainbow: Seediq Bale, a young boy races through the jungles of Taiwan, chasing after a boar. Just as he fells the animal with an arrow, he catches a bullet from a rival tribe. There follows five frenzied minutes of bow- and gunslinging, interspersed with fisticuffs and decapitations, all captured by Wei in balletic camera moves that make the entire mêlée look beautiful and meaningful, even though viewers don’t yet know who anyone is, what the trouble is about, or really anything having to do with the movie’s actual plot.
After a brief title sequence, Wei sets up the story, via voiceover and montage. Warriors Of The Rainbow takes place in the early 20th century, during the time when Taiwan was signed over to Japan, which wanted to civilize the aboriginal tribes and gain access to the “endless treasures” rumored to be in the mountains. Around 1930, Lin Ching-Tai, one of the leaders of the Seediq tribes, rallies his people to put aside their pay-envelopes and wine-jugs and join him in an organized assault against their occupiers, before the Japanese can deplete the last of their natural resources. Many more scenes like the opener follow, as cold steel flashes and blood spurts. But the battle quickly escalates, as the Japanese bring in airplanes and machine guns to face off against the Seediqs’ crude guerrilla booby traps.
At two and a half hours, Warriors Of The Rainbow has the shape of something weightier than the simplified good-vs.-evil movie it actually is. There’s a lot of setup, as Wei laboriously establishes just how beaten-down the natives are, and shows Lin’s gradual political awakening. But the gruntwork is balanced out by Warriors Of The Rainbow’s wonderfully mythic look (similar to some of Tsui Hark’s martial-arts classics), and its distinctive mix of war movies, Westerns, and samurai pictures. Plus Lin gives a commanding performance, baring the soul of a man who’s seen his way of life degraded and diminished over the course of decades, until he finally decides it’s better to die with honor than grow old as a coward. Though it takes too long to get where it’s going, Warriors Of The Rainbow is undeniably rousing once Lin starts teaching the younger generation the lessons of their ancestors, including the one the audience may most need to hear: “A good hunter waits patiently.”