How could Wei Te-sheng better himself after directing the highest grossing Taiwanese movie ever? He tells Edmund Lee why he decided to make Seediq Bale, the most expensive film in the island’s history.
Wei Te-sheng doesn’t make movies – he makes history. His first full-length feature Cape No.7 (2008) was made with a US$1.5million budget, and went on to gross US$18m and become one of the highest earners in Taiwan’s box office history. Armed with the island’s biggest film budget ever, of US$24m, the 42-year-old filmmaker then proceeded to realise his dream project: a four-and-a-half-hour action epic based on the little-known Wushe Incident, chronicling an aboriginal uprising against the rule of Japanese colonisers in 1930s Taiwan. The film, titled Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, premiered at September’s Venice Film Festival with a poorly abbreviated version – to predictably mixed reviews; although its much more engrossing full version, which is screened in two installments, has since been nominated for 11 awards at Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse Film Festival. (*Nov 26 update: The film took home five awards, including Best Feature Film.) Wei sat down with Time Out to reflect on his filming process.
How did you first learn about this historical event?
I came across two news items by coincidence in 1995 or ’96. The first was about Taiwan’s indigenous people, who arrived at Taipei from the east to demand the government to return their lands. The other news was – funnily enough – about Hong Kong: it’s on the question whether Hong Kong should be returned to [the People’s Republic of] China or the Republic of China (Taiwan). I found it very interesting that both were connected to land, as if it’s the only thing we’ve lost in the past. I wondered, indeed, if there isn’t anything else? I started to research about the aboriginal people and eventually came across a comic book on the Wushe Incident. I thought: oh wow, who’d have thought that there’s a brilliant story like this in Taiwanese history and I’d never heard of it?
You’d never heard of it?
I did have a history lesson on the Wushe Incident when I was young, although it’s covered in all of two lines in the textbooks. I’ve never realised that it has such a brilliant story within. From then on, I just kept on learning more about it. History is a funny thing: when you’re sucked into it, there’s no coming back out. You keep thinking: Why? Why? Why?
Did you set out to convey any particular ideas with the film?
I was only thinking about the story from the start but, gradually, I began to think of the story from the [aboriginal] hunters’ perspective, and not just the textbooks’ perspective. There’s a strong feeling in me that only a realistic portrayal [of the history] can resolve the hatred. Many historical conflicts stemmed from the lack of understanding – or, more precisely, the unwillingness to understand.
Before watching the film, I was expecting to see a simplistic portrayal of the pride and dignity of the aboriginal people; it has certainly turned out to be much more morally ambiguous than I thought. For one thing, you don’t shy away from showing us the barbaric side of your protagonists.
Right. And this is what we often encounter while studying history: why do [the protagonists] kill unarmed people who are completely vulnerable? The question may go for the Japanese too: why do they come to [colonise] Taiwan when they’ve been living comfortably in Japan in the first place? When the aboriginal people kill, they’re only doing so according to their own cultural and religious belief. Decapitation in itself is a barbaric act but, for these people, it’s their way to resolve hatred. It’s in their belief that there’s no difference between the living and the dead.
Speaking of beheadings, the graphic violence in your film has been highlighted in many of its reviews. What’s your opinion on that?
My opinion is that [the film] is not violent at all. The real violence is the excessive and gratuitous use of it. I hope people can think about these questions: is it violent to terminate a life with one stroke of the knife? Is it not violent to kill hundreds of people when you drop a bomb from the sky? Sometimes we’re choosing to ignore the civilised forms of violence, while believing that it’s only violent when blood splashes out from a knife [wound].
Since the film’s premiere in September, what is the question that you’ve been asked most?
People tend to talk about the cultural and historical aspects of it, but… I don’t know why, but in Taiwan the [topic I’m asked] most is: why did I spend so much money on this thing? Why did I do it even when I didn’t have the money? Many people put their focus on our financing troubles rather than the film itself. I find that rather weird. [Laughs]
Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale I 賽德克．巴萊 上集：太陽旗 is in cinemas now; Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale II 賽德克．巴萊 下集：彩虹橋 opens on Dec 1. Both parts are screened in Seediq and Japanese with Chinese subtitles only. The TV documentary Taiwan Revealed: Cinema, which chronicles the lengthy production of Wei’s film, premieres on Saturday at 7pm on Nov 26 on Discovery Channel.