“Seediq Bale” as a primitivist film

Seediq Bale is the biggest Taiwan film ever and the story of an indigenous resistance (against the Japanese in central Taiwan in 1930). As such, it reminds one of Avatar. Having spent many childhood nights reading Call of the Wild to the light of the moon, and many days in early adulthood reading Joseph Campbell – the great Primitivist and Orientalist – I’m embarrassed to admit that I came out of Avatar starry-eyed; Avatar is calculated to appeal to people like me with a “primitivist” tendency. It speaks, in a highly commercialized, packaged, unthreatening and, on second and third viewings, irritating way to longings in the wayward heart of modern man. Seediq Bale, for everything else that one might say about it, speaks to those same longings.

Primitivism was originally a current in Modernist art. It’s been accused of complicity with colonialism. Gauguin painted girls in the South Pacific. Part of primitivism was western artists looking at indigenous girls. If that’s all there was to Primitivism one could dismiss it as colonialist decadence, but there’s more to it than that. There’s primitivism in D. H. Lawrence and Yeats, neither one a colonialist. According to Marianna Togorovnick, there’s primitivism in lots of seminal thinkers and interesting lives, from Carl Gustav Jung to Diane Fossey. Intellectually, primitivism can be a critique of individualist rationalism, while emotionally it’s a longing for a more natural and vital existence.

While we wait in line, chew our nails, fill out forms, surf the internet, we think that the actual jungle would be a more exciting place to live than the concrete jungle. We imagine that “primitives” were closer to their bodies, to one another, to animals, to nature, and to the cosmos than we are. Not just closer, but at one with; Togorovnick writes of ecstasy, not of sexual pleasure but of “standing outside” oneself, of mystic participation. Togorovnick connects ecstasy to the Freudian death wish, which from another perspective is a life wish: the monad dies and is reborn as part of the whole. Maybe in some sense all films, and all fiction, through the suspension of disbelief, give us a kind of ecstasy. At their best, Seediq Bale and other primitivist films allow us ecstasy through an idea of the aborigine. Avatar degenerates into a love story, but the group yoga sessions are ecstatic communion, the gamer premise of the “avatar” is ecstatic, and true love is potentially ecstatic as well. Neither anthropologists nor mystics will be terribly impressed by the film-going primitivist, who only has to fork over 10 bucks and a few hours of his or her time. But for most people that’s as close as we get.

Maybe the director of Seediq Bale hasn’t really gotten all that much closer, but he’s at least more imaginative than most people. At least based on his published writings, the director, Wei Te-sheng, seems to be a primitivist. Long before he was famous, Wei Te-sheng released a book about being an out of work director. In it he whines about being out of work. He’s just as good as other directors; why has success passed him by? In and among the whining is some first rate complaint about modern urban life, about the noise, the boredom, the monotony, the waste, the ugliness, the rationalized insanity of Taipei. Wei complains about the people too. The modern city is supposed to be democratic but is actually full of drones. Wei Te-sheng sounds like a romantic, but anyone who takes a trip into the Taiwan countryside will see that it has a lot of the same qualities of the city. To get away from the city Wei Te-sheng had to go into the mountains and into the past. There he found people he wanted to identify with, men like giants, seediq bale, the “true people” of the title of his film.

So how do the larger-than-life Seediq aborigines in Seediq Bale seem closer to their bodies, one another, animals, nature, and the cosmos? First of all, the Seediq in the film have wonderful bodies, all the more impressive given that they are real people not the CGI creations of Avatar. These are about the most impressive film aborigines I’ve seen. They don’t run around the mountains barefoot at several thousand meters above sea level like the Seediq aborigines used to do, but they’re in pretty good shape. They cover their bodies in clothing that would once have been made by hand by members of the local community. They look better in my eyes than any urbanite, from the guy who wears mass produced polyester to the metrosexual. They don’t have body image issues, and they don’t follow fashion.

Second, they’re closer to one another. I don’t want to resort to the cliche of communal life, but it seems apt. In the film the Seediq live in small houses in small villages. The door’s not locked, and it’s not even closed most of the time. Though fiercely territorial they don’t have private property. They hold goods in common. They drink together very lustily out of the same cup. They feast together. They dance together. They live with ancestors and enemies, literally. Each household has got a collection of skulls, of family members and victims of the headhunt. This sounds morbid, but also strangely intimate. Family members appear as visual or auditory hallucinations. The Seediq are never alone.

Third, to animals, on whom they depend for food and company. The opening scene is of a boar hunt, and it’s just like the beginning of Apocalypto. The hero of the film Mona Rudao has a CGI bird familiar that appears a half dozen times in the course of the film, to say nothing of his pet dog.

Fourth, to nature. To begin with, almost all Seediq production and consumption in the film is local, dependent on the familiar environment. They buy salt from the local Chinese trader, but the salt probably came from somewhere in Taiwan. The landscapes in Seediq Bale are sublime. The sublime, since the 18th c., has been in poetry and painting a safe opportunity for ecstasy. Kant analyzed the sublime into static and moving, but the idea was basically that your rational mind was overwhelmed. Rationality sometimes seems overrated, or at least it can’t be the whole of experience. Less than a century after Kant approached the issue analytically, Nietzsche celebrated the Dionysiac over and above the Apollonian. The closest I get to the Dionysiac is the sense of “shudder” I get from literature once in a while, and now and then the nature scenes in Seediq Bale afford a similar thrill: when Mona Rudao’s up on the mountaintop singing to his ancestors, or when he sings a duet with his father by the waterfall as a rainbow appears. Those familiar with the Japanese aesthetic tradition may find the scenes with the sakura blossoms, so reminiscent of the color of blood, similarly sublime.

Mona on a mountaintop
Mona at the waterfall
The Japanese aesthetic in Seediq Bale

Fifth, to the cosmos. I write as an atheist who’s occasionally had a sense of awe at the heaventree of stars or the Dao but is usually too busy translating and tending my garden. The aborigines in Seediq Bale have a living religion, and as I understand it one of the purposes of religion is to give a sense of the cosmos. The Seediq believe there’s a rainbow bridge, and if you cross it with the tattoos that prove adulthood you’ll reach a happy hunting ground. In his unemployed director book, Wei Te-sheng is in awe of the power of Seediq belief. It’s “the power of belief” that gives the warriors the courage to go on the headhunt and to slaughter the Japanese. This makes the Seediq aborigines sound a lot like terrorists…I suppose I don’t know enough about terrorists to comment further, but my almost completely ignorant hypothesis would be that terrorists don’t usually imagine that they’ll be on friendly terms with, or at one with, their enemies after they blow them up. The Seediq did. They performed atonement rituals after the headhunt and the former enemy became an intimate friend.

The Western intellectual’s typical response (i.e. my own typical response) is to analyze, and that’s what I’ve done above, providing an analysis of ecstasy. I could try to sum up discursively, but the power of Seediq Bale is in images. So, in lieu of a conclusion, I’ll finish with two of my favorite visual moments in the film. One of the problems with Avatar according to Slavoj Zizek was that visually and narratively it borrowed too much from other films, that it was a pastiche not a work of art. I can tell that Wei Te-sheng’s watched Apocalypto, but the following two scenes seemed original.

Mona Rudao, the future leader of the resistance and already a legend, is in front of a huge pit filled with skulls. When ordered to throw the skulls from his own collection in with the rest, Mona attacks a Japanese soldier and falls with him onto the pile of skulls, and other Japanese soldiers fall on top of them to restrain Mona, whose face is placed up against the skull of an ancestor. This was the beginning of the subjugation of Mona and the Seediq people. The Japanese forced modernity, in the form of prostitution and wage labor, upon them. As the film very obviously tells us, after Mona’s resistance, the Japanese reprisal, involving poison gas, was more savage than savage, that there’s savagery in the iron heart of industrial modernity.

Pawan Nawi’s granny leaves him

You couldn’t blame the Seediq aborigines for not wanting to enter this brave new world in which everything and everyone is, through the global division of labor and the modern spatial regime, alienated. As presented in Seediq Bale, the Seediq worldview was not one of spatial and temporal separation, but of communion in space and time. The Seediq women, also true people, seediq bale, chose communion over separation. Their fate has been forced upon them by the Seediq warriors, but they love their fates. The beleaguered Seediq have nearly run out of food, and so the women decide not to be a burden. They hang themselves en masse, according to Seediq custom, hoping to join the ancestors. They’ll soon be joined by the warriors. They hang themselves from branches in a secluded grove, in a scene that blends horror with beauty.

In its combination of the lyrical and the terrible Seediq Bale is not simply entertainment, a break from the tedium of modern life. At its worst, Seediq Bale, at four and a half hours, half the time battle scenes, is another kind of tedium; but at its best it draws the individual viewer outside of himself, however fleetingly, in the manner of primitivist art.

Darryl Sterk is a Chinese-English literary translator and scholar of Chinese literature, specifically Sinophone literature from Taiwan. His scholarly interest is the comparative representation of aboriginal places and peoples in film and literature.

4 thoughts on ““Seediq Bale” as a primitivist film

  1. Thanks so much, Darryl, for this eloquent, sympathetic, poetic, informative and sensible review. I definitely want to see this film (though I’m wondering whether such a work will receive wide distribution), especially since I’ve been doing a fair amount of research on the music of the Taiwanese tribals.

    I remember being told, years ago, that the “Sajek” (aka Seddiq or Seediq or Sazek) were such fierce warriors that they were able to defeat any and all Japanese forces that dared impinge upon their territory. I guess that assessment was an exaggeration, but it looks like they might have come close.

    I love your very open minded and balanced take on “primitivism.” At first I thought this would be the usual dismissive response of the sort we’ve become so accustomed to wherever anthropologists (or my fellow ethnomusicologists) find something that might smell suspiciously of “romanticizing” or “idealizing” or “primitivizing” those so-called “noble savages” and thus promulgating some sort of “myth,” which of course “we” now know to be hopelessly misguided.

    It disturbs me to realize that so many anthropologists still take such a narrow view of any attempt to portray authentic indigenous traditions in a sympathetic light, while ludicrous garbage, such as the music video presented here in an earlier post (http://savageminds.org/2010/08/04/kapah-young-men/) is praised as “a seminal moment in the history of indigenous music in Taiwan.”

  2. Hi Victor,

    I’d like to hear about your research. There’s a song I’ve heard over and over, about a guy whose parents tell him to go wandering 流浪, crying as they see him off, and he goes to Taipei to find the girl he loves but doesn’t find her. I’ve heard this song in films ever since The Two Sign Painters in 1989. It’s a good But it’s not exactly traditional and Taiwan’s traditional aboriginal music is definitely something I want to investigate. I think you dismiss Suming a little too quickly though. The author of that piece seems to know the background to his subject – hip hop, Japanese and Korean pop, Indian music, all the dancing that goes along with these commercial music trends – really well, a lot better than me. The rise of aboriginal pop music in Taiwan since Amei’s 1996 album is in itself an interesting topic. I’m not sure Suming is going to make it in the mainstream if he continues to present himself so boyishly, but he’s still interesting.

    I’m glad I sounded balanced in the article as a whole. I worried I sounded naive. The problem with primitivism even at its most benign is that you’re playing with an idea of aboriginal people without having to act on it. One of the ways to act on it would be to get out of Starbucks and the urban middle class milieu and go see how other people live. Not an anthropologist myself, I have the perhaps somewhat romantic idea that this is what anthropologists do.

    Thanks for your reply!

    Darryl.

  3. Dr Grauer,
    Generally, neither Tsai nor Hatfield respond to unsolicited comments on web based forums; however, your perceptive appraisal of Suming’s work—and by extension, Tsai’s research on ‘Amis youth culture—required some rejoinder

    Overall, we would like to commend you. Clearly you are expert enough to diagnose the problems facing Taiwanese indigenous people today and a provide an adequate solution. In the spirit of Biung (Wang Hong-En), who replied to a similarly well meaning speech by President Ma at the Golden Melody Awards last summer, where Suming won an award in the Best Indigenous Language Album category, we need to thank you. After all, our Ph ds in cultural anthropology and longterm fieldwork on Taiwan have left us rather like Taiwanese indigenous people, who will tell you, like Biung, that they only understand beer, betelnut, and barbeque. And yes, just a little singing. As for Suming and his many supporters among indigenous youth, who are they, either, to understand the value of their own traditional music? Thankfully, there is always a colonial outsider to set everyone on the right track. Although you seem never to have visited A’tolan, we are sure that you could correct A’tolan ‘Amis regalia, adjust the dances, and purify the music to fit your informed, expert determination of what ‘Amis tradition should be. We would be particularly grateful, because, after all, culture shouldn’t be left to indigenous people themselves to spoil with “ludicrous garbage” like Suming’s project. You would be doing ‘Amis communities a great service, because ‘Amis do not realize that their ongoing engagements with media, including popular culture, is an offense against authenticity and good taste. Perhaps after learning Suwalo no ‘Amis well enough, you could come help them?

    Your task is urgent, Dr Grauer, because town elders in A’tolan have twice commended Suming at A’tolan’s annual Kilomaan festival for his work with A’tolan’s youth. For the past several years, Suming has held a benefit concert tour to fund an education program for indigenous youth in his home town and to promote greater awareness in urban Taiwan of indigenous land and cultural issues. He has actively participated in this program as a manager and has dedicated many of his resources to efforts for education in traditional placenames, subsistence methods, music, and dance. As for the wealthy patron you suggest, Dr Grauer, she seems to be missing at the moment. In her absence, Suming has relied on his voice to maintain and expand programs for ‘Amis youth to revitalize the age grade system, which had nearly vanished in his hometown and elsewhere. However, you know much more about ‘Amis traditional music than even A’tolan’s elders. Please visit and tell them that Suming’s work is an “exercise in narcissim.” They are certain to be enlightened.

    We would love for you to assist us. Please tell Suming that creating new media in Suwalo no ‘Amis, with great care for vocabulary and sentence structure so that the music can serve efforts in language education, is but veneer on Hollywood pap. After all, Suming—and to think that we were misled!—was of the opinion that employing a popular medium could allow his language to circulate more broadly, to insinuate itself into spaces dominated by KPop and JPop, the better to encourage people to think of Suwalo no ‘Amis as a vital language and not a museum piece.

    ‘Amis engagements with globally circulating popular culture, like that of most Taiwanese people, date to the 1930s. These engagements, as shown in Tsai’s award winning work and elaborated in recent research by Tsai and Hatfield, continue to serve within a traditional, but always evolving, ‘Amis aesthetic of play. Through their play with outside media, ‘Amis people imagine themselves beyond the limits imposed on them by successive colonial and neocolonial enterprises. It’s in this sense that Suming’s work, which greatly expands the scope of this play and projects it into mainstream media, is seminal. We also argue that in its ongoing play with modernity, it continues traditional ‘Amis aesthetics. It is, to use language introduced by Marshall Sahlins, the way that ‘Amis people transform the world system into their system of the world. But thank you, Dr Grauer for your helpful remarks. We thought that indigenous people were exercising their right to represent themselves as themselves. We are glad that an expert like yourself could, without a Ph D in a relevant discipline, longterm fieldwork on Taiwan, or an established commitment to an ‘Amis community, provide such a penetrating and well considered critique of Suming’s work. We hope that in the future you will come teach the A’tolan ‘Amis how to be the kind of good indigenous people that they should be. Perhaps you and President Ma can join forces and educate us all. In the meantime, we will stay in A’tolan with our mijiu, betelnut, and barbeque.

    Respectfully

    Futuru Tsai
    DJ Hatfield

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