Commentary on the film Seediq Bale often relates it to Taiwan identity. Leaping the fifty years from the Wushe Incident (1930) to Taiwan nationalism (1980s) might seem like a non sequitur or anachronistic, but many have made the leap. According to The Economist, “its message of a unique, empowering Taiwanese identity is unmistakable.” I found this statement very irritating when I read it. What business does anyone have relating a Seediq resistance against the Japanese to Taiwan identity? I’ll address the issue of the supposed connection between Seediq Bale and Taiwan identity in a roundabout way, by exploring Seediq Bale as an epic film. It seems to me that the film’s message is of an epic identity, not necessarily an empowering one.
Seediq Bale is often described as a shi3shi1 史詩 – an “historical poem” – the typical Chinese translation of “epic.” The original epics were oral historical poetry, but orality and poetry are no longer essential features of epic. Maybe history isn’t essential either; epic is sometimes used with the simple meaning of “grand.” But I’ll be assuming a more complicated and interesting definition “a grand, repetitive mytho-historical narrative of conflict that begins in the middle (in medias res) captures the imagination of posterity because it bears on identity, both individual and collective.” It seems to me that Seediq Bale articulates an epic identity at odds with our modern notion of personal identity.
The most obvious meaning of epic is simply very long, and Seediq Bale is indeed very long. At four and a half hours, it is the longest Taiwan feature film by about half an hour. (Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer’s Day, to my knowledge the second longest, was a very different kind of film!). At a budget of 25 million USD it is the largest Taiwan production ever. The director Wei Te-sheng has plans for a three part epic treatment of Taiwan’s Dutch era (1624-1661), from Dutch, Chinese and Siraya plains aboriginal points of view. This would be another eight hours of epic filmmaking. After the theatres take their share of the gross, Seediq Bale is likely to remain in the red by a few million USD, so it’s not clear whether Wei Te-sheng will get the chance to make another epic film.
Seediq Bale also has many large battle scenes, involving large numbers of actors. The large battle scene is one of the defining features of the film epic. The way the battle scenes are filmed reflects an epic contrast of perspectives. Now we see the scene as a whole, from an objective perspective, now we switch to a close up in the heat of the action, from the perspectives of an individual hero.
Epics involve “epic machinery,” the world of gods above the world of men. In oral epic, the spirit world can be powerfully evoked, but film deals in images, and images of the numinous can be fantastical or just plain silly. It is usually better to suggest, not directly represent, the otherworld in a film. Seediq Bale tends to represent the spirits directly. Sometimes this works, as in the duet between Mona Rudao and the spirit of his father at the waterfall. Sometimes it does not work, as when the host of dead warriors appear walking on a rainbow cloud near the end of the film, first in profile, then head on. The CGI in the film, especially the animals, is generally pretty good, but the awfulness of the cloudborn warriors scene is universally acknowledged. The world of the gods in Seediq Bale is inhabited by the ancestors, which provides a justification for all seemingly objective shots, which is to say shots that do not represent the subjective POV of some character or other.
Like an oral epic, in which the same epithets are applied ad infinitum to fill out the metrical form, Seediq Bale is extremely repetitive. The violence of the film is repetitive, as in Homer’s Iliad. One could also complain about the repetitiveness of the (excellent) score and of the imagery. Mona Rudao’s CGI bird familiar appears half a dozen times, for instance. I don’t know how many times Mona Rudao mentions the rainbow bridge across which true men, men who have headhunted, can cross to reach the rich hunting ground of the afterlife – a dozen times at least. Repetitiveness is not necessarily a flaw in a work of art; it is arguably a feature of the epic form, especially since epic tends to be oral. Films are more oral than novels, and we tend to tolerate oral repetition more than we do in writing.
Starting in medias res is one of the defining features of the narrative structure of an epic. The Iliad starts not with the beginning of the war or the causes of the war but with the theme of Achilles’s wrath in the final year of the story. Seediq Bale starts in medias res with a scene in which Mona Rudao hunts a wild boar. But this scene is near the beginning; the only flashback is when Mona Rudao remembers his father teaching him about the traditional beliefs. Otherwise, the narrative structure of Seediq Bale is temporally straightforward. The action sometimes divides into several strands, but these strands proceed together in time and are linked by crosscutting.
Epics are stories of conflict that seem significant to posterity because of the role they play in identity construction. Conflict is after all a wonderful catalyst for identity, because it forces one to take sides. Some war stories are no longer significant for identity construction, because they seem somehow too far away, yet they still capture the imagination. The Spartan resistance to the Persian advance at Thermopylae, the story of 300 defending a pass against an army of thousands, is a good example. The most recent retelling of this story is the film 300. This film seems to have a lot in common with Seediq Bale. Like 300, Seediq Bale is a film that aestheticizes violence (by juxtaposing the breathtakingly beautiful sakura bloom with images of gore, for instance) and which was adapted from a comic book (see the cover of the comic book which inspired Seediq Bale below). I think Seediq Bale even alludes to the Spartan resistance. The Japanese general who leads the reprisal is stunned that three hundred indigenous warriors could resist thousands of highly trained troops of a modern army with planes, Howitzers, and poison gas.
But like an oral epic, and unlike a purely commercial film like 300, Seediq Bale seems to have a contemporary meaning. That contemporary meaning has to do with identity construction, both individual and collective.
First, what does the film say about individual identity? Mona Rudao’s concept of identity has a wonderful simplicity: he has an unambiguous external marker of his individuality. Like Odysseus, Mona Rudao bears a scar, a scar on his cheek as a result of a hunting accident. This serves as visual proof of his identity for everyone he meets. It allows the audience to identify Mona Rudao as a young man and a middle aged man – he’s played by two actors. His scar reminds me of Erich Auerbach’s great essay “Odysseus’s Scar.” Auerbach argued that identity in Homeric epic is externalized, in contrast to the internalized identity of Biblical narrative. Odysseus returned home after years of wandering and was recognized by his wet nurse because of the unambiguous mark on his thigh. Classicists and biblical scholars debate Auerbach’s interpretation; but it seems to me that “an unambiguous externalized identity” applies to Mona Rudao.
For Mona Rudao does not just have a single scar. He also has the scars of the tattoos on his chin and forehead. These scars attest to his status as a “real man,” a seediq bale, a person qualified to cross the rainbow bridge into the happy hunting grounds of the afterlife. These scars mark his status as an adult male, a warrior. How easy it is to tell a real man from a child, in Mona Rudao’s world!
In this respect Mona Rudao is an impressive but ultimately rather uninteresting character. His concept of identity is more status than identity. It’s either/or, and it’s externally marked. In Seediq Bale Mona Rudao relates to the child warrior Bawan Nawi that he visited Japan in the 1900s. He seems to have returned to Taiwan with only a technological concept of modernity. He knew the Japanese had powerful weapons, but didn’t get any idea of psychological modernity. His sense of himself remained ancient. According to Wei Te-sheng, he lauched the attack on Wushe as a headhunting ritual for a generation of young Seediq men who had not had the chance to become bale.
Mona Rudao’s concept of identity as externalized status is juxtaposed in the film with a more modern concept of personal identity. The most interesting example of a modern identity in the film is the Dakis/Hanaoka brothers, especially the elder brother Dakis Nobin or Hanaoka Ichiro. The brothers suffer from a more modern complicated idea of self. Born Seediq, they were educated to be Japanese. They were caught between Japanese modernity and Seediq tradition. In the film they are bullied by their Japanese colleagues and rejected by their own people. In this scene at the waterfall, Mona Rudao asks the elder brother to choose: are you going to the Shinto shrine when you die, or will you walk across the rainbow bridge?
Conflict catalyzes identity because it forces a person to choose, as if who you are is which side you’re on. The brothers want to claim both Seediq and Japanese identities. Nobody lets them. For them, the conflict becomes psychological, internal. In the end brothers can’t choose which side they are on. The brothers let Mona Rudao launch the attack against the Japanese at Wushe but don’t participate in it. They commit suicide together, one by seppuku, the other by hanging, the one according to Japanese, the other according to Seediq tradition.
Together they embody a modern psychological conflict. Alongside Mona Rudao’s unambiguous, lofty, epic concept of identity is a more confused, conflicted, contextualized idea of identity. The psychological conflicts of the brothers, which are conflicts of identity, enrich Seediq Bale. Yet they are not typical of epic. Epic conflicts are between sides or within a side, not within the individual. In the Iliad the Greek side spends most of the time fighting amongst themselves before they finally get their act together and defeat the Trojans by stealth. This might be called epic identity construction.
The notion of epic identity construction brings me back to the issue of Taiwan identity. The reader will recall that The Economist linked the film to Taiwan identity. It’s indisputable that the film is about identity. It even advertises itself as a comment on identity. The preview released at the end of August tells us right off the bat that we’ll be transported back to “an era of confused identities” (認同混淆的年代). People who know the story will think of the Dakis/Hanaoka brothers. They each had a confused identity. It’s clear that the film is commenting on individual identity. Is it also commenting on group identity, in particular Taiwan identity?
I think so, but in this respect Wei Te-sheng deserves credit for some degree of subtlety. Previous filmic or fictional treatments of Wushe have often overtly linked Wushe to Chinese and Taiwanese national identity. In his A History of Pain, the scholar Michael Berry has shown how Chinese nationalists saw Mona Rudao as participating in the national Chinese resistance against Japan (抗日), while Taiwanese nationalists viewed Mona Rudao as symbolically willing to defend Taiwan’s territory at the cost of his own life. Both kinds of nationalists identified with Mona Rudao and often inserted a Chinese or Taiwanese character who serves as Mona Rudao’s big brother or trusted adviser. In other words, in these works, there is Chinese or Taiwanese identification or close association with Mona Rudao and the Seediq rebels. This may remind students of American popular culture of the Mohawks at the Boston Tea Party and of James Fenimore Cooper’s oft-retold tale Last of the Mohicans. Americans also identified or closely associated with indigenous peoples, at an early stage of settler nation building.
There were Americans pretending to be ungovernable “revolting” Mohican Indians at the Boston Tea Party, and Leatherstocking, the main character in the works of Fenimore Cooper, America’s first national novelist, is bosom buddies with Chinggachgook. As the last of the Mohicans, Chinggachgook rather conveniently leaves the country to Leatherstocking’s people, the “Americans.” Seediq Bale, by contrast, is less overtly nationalistic. There are no Chinese or Taiwanese characters in Seediq Bale pretending to be Seediq or associating with the Seediq. In fact, there aren’t any significant Chinese or Taiwanese characters in the film at all.
That doesn’t mean that Seediq Bale doesn’t have anything to do with Taiwan identity. In the past two decades there has been an Wushe comic book and, inevitably, an album by the black metal band CthtoniC that went on to tour the States with Ozzy Ozborne. Both works come out of Taiwan nationalism, but in neither case is the link between Wushe and Taiwan identity made overtly within the work.
So what would a Taiwanese nationalist interpretation of Seediq Bale be like? The simplest nationalist interpretation of the film would be to identify Mona Rudao with a future Taiwanese leader and the Seediq rebels with this leader’s supporters. The Japanese would represent a potential invader. Let’s assume this invader is the PRC. To put it crudely or bluntly (and this is a crude and blunt interpretation) from a Taiwanese perspective, the film is, on this interpretation, saying that the Taiwanese people will defend their territory. They’d rather die than submit.
There are some problems with this interpretation. To begin with, if the Seediq in Seediq Bale represent the Taiwanese people, then the film seems to be saying that the Taiwanese public is hopelessly fragmented, because the Seediq in the film are hopelessly fragmented. Not everyone would rather die than submit. Mona Rudao was Seediq, but he didn’t lead a united Seediq resistance against the Japanese. Rather, he arranged a coalition of six Tkdaya Seediq tribal villages. Tkdaya is the name of a subgroup of the Seediq linguistic or cultural group. Mona Rudao was a leader of a Tkdaya village called Mahebo in alliance with other Tkdaya villages. Not all the Tkdaya villages participated in the Wushe Incident, only six of twelve. Other Seediq groups were antagonistic to the Tkdaya. The Toda Seediq, for instance, led in the film by Temu Walis, cooperated with the Japanese during the reprisal that followed the Wushe Incident. Not all of the Toda villages participated. The Japanese promised the participating Toda warriors so much money per Tkdaya Seediq head, and so the Toda went after the Tkdaya. In other words, Seediq Bale is a story about internal divisions more than an epic tale of anticolonial resistance.
Maybe the fragmentation in the Seediq body politic is not really an interpretive problem, because Taiwan’s body politic is hopelessly fragmented (which country’s isn’t?). At this point in the argument, some knowledge of Taiwan’s political scene is necessary. Identity, as opposed to social justice or the environment, has been the main political issue in Taiwan for decades, arguably since the Japanese period. After 1937 the Japanese implemented a policy of imperialization: everyone was taught to be an imperial subject. The KMT Chinese nationalist policy was similar: everyone in Taiwan was taught he or she was Chinese; the national myth was the reconquest of mainland China. Since the rise of a vocal Taiwan nationalism in the 1980s, identity confusion has become overt. There are some who feel they are Taiwanese and Chinese, some insist they are Taiwanese not Chinese. And with the missiles pointed at Taiwan, militant mainland Chinese rhetoric, and American vacillation, it’s not hard to see why identity is the main issue in local politics. If cross-Strait relations heated up, there would be a corresponding political polarization. At that time, through a process of “epic identity construction,” Mona Rudao’s either/or statement of status (“I am Seediq!) would come to seem even more compelling, and the Dakis/Hanaoka both/and idea of identity (“We’re both Seediq and Japanese…”) even more wishy washy.
Unfortunately, the ending of Seediq Bale does not give Taiwan nationalists cause for comfort. That’s the problem with choosing this particular historical incident as a nationalist myth, because the ending is predetermined by the history of Wushe: the Seediq lose. If we’re applying a Taiwanese nationalist interpretation to the film, whatever would this ending mean? In the film the warriors of the rainbow reunite in the afterlife; we see them striding on the clouds. This is hardly going to satisfy people for whom Seediq traditional belief is not a living religion. The fact is that almost everyone dies. Maybe like Achilles they die gloriously, but maybe it would be better not to die. Unlike Homer’s Iliad, Seediq Bale does not have a happy ending from the protagonist’s persective. And we can’t argue that Wei Te-sheng is telling the Taiwan people: this is what will happen to you if you don’t unite. If the Seediq in the film – all 12 Tkdaya tribes plus the Toda tribal villages – had united against the Japanese, the result would have ultimately been the same.
At the end of the film, four hours and twenty minutes in, we are reassured that the Seediq people have not been wiped out; they will recover. They will have Seediq children and those children will have children. But when you think about this, it’s not all that comforting. Those children would grow up under the Japanese and those grandchildren would grow up under the Chinese. Last time I checked Taiwan was not postcolonial from a Seediq perspective, because the Taiwanese people who like to identify with the Seediq – like the Americans who identified with the revolting Mohawks in 1775 – are running the island. So ultimately I still resist a Taiwan nationalist interpretation of the film. The Wushe Incident has to be understood in terms of 1930. I don’t think it has much to teach us about Taiwan identity today. The collective identity the film seems to express does not seem, as The Economist puts, empowering, certainly not in a contemporary context. There is a collective action in the film, but the action is doomed to failure and only half of the collective participates in it. Epic identity is impressive, but the modern, wishy-washy identity also has its place. Epic requires conflict; I pray for peace.
Maybe Wei Te-sheng does too. On a talk show Wei Te-sheng said he realized the film was about a conflict of belief, the people who believe in the rising sun and the people who believe in the rainbow bridge. What if the Japanese and Seediq, Wei naively wonders, had realized that the sun and the rainbow hang in the same sky, in the same heaven? Maybe it took the Wushe Incident for them to realize it. I hope it doesn’t take another incident for us to realize the same thing today.