My long list of movies about modern China breaks into two distinct timeframes. First is the span of three decades from the collapse of the last Imperial Dynasty in 1911 to the onset of World War II. The second begins in the late 1940s, after the war is over. It covers the rise to power of  Mao Zedong, including the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, and the rebirth of Chinese culture after the death of Chairman Mao (1893-1976). Movies about World War II will be found in a later edition of this website.

Part I

There is one movie on my list that covers the two timeframes. Farewell My Concubine is a little tough to watch in places, and not meant for family viewing, but it follows The Last Emperor with a fine picture of the middle years of the 20th century in China.

Farewell My Concubine  (1993)

This film was not much appreciated in its homeland, but was highly successful in the West. A lavishly-colored Chinese production, it traces the careers of two stars of the Peking Opera.  There is a prolog in which the two old actors enter an arena in 1977 to reminisce about their past. Survivors of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), they are in full costume for the lead roles in the traditional opera “Farewell My Concubine.” Flashbacks return to 1924 with a street performance by some acrobats in Peking (today Beijing).  A young boy is taken by his prostitute mother to enter into training as an actor for the opera. The training is harsh in the extreme. The boy makes a friend who will be his professional companion for a lifetime of artistic triumphs and travails.

From the early years of brutal training, the film jumps to 1937 when China is at war with Japan.  The two boys are now grown and have become famous for their portrayals of the King and his Concubine. It jumps again to 1945, and the liberation from Japanese occupation. Through all of these changes, there are those who value the old traditions, and others who revile them. A mob trashes the theater where the opera is being performed, and Dieyi (the Concubine) is arrested. The fortunes of the two performers continue to fluctuate from moments of triumph to more frequent occasions for despair. In 1948, the Nationalists evacuate the mainland for Taiwan, and in the following year the Communist People’s Army moves into Beijing. Maoists execute the director of the opera.

Through it all, the devotion of the feminine partner to his fellow player is unrelenting. When the masculine actor marries a former prostitute from the House of Blossoms, a stream of resentment and jealousy enters their lives. The Cultural Revolution will be their particular Hell, driving them to betray one another. It is now 1977 and they have returned to their roles in a renewed China that is learning to balance the old (opera) and the new (postmodern cinema). It ends tragically.

 The decades that followed the overthrow of the Empire in 1911 were marked by struggles for power and extreme hardship for the people of China. The Republic of China was declared 1912, but could not keep a grip on the reins of national government. The Warlord Era began in 1916 and lasted twelve years, reflecting regressive efforts to restore or replace the Empire. A civil war between two competing visions for China’s future, the Nationalists and the Communists, began in 1927. The Japanese invaded the weakened country in 1937, bringing on the horrors of the Second World War.

Two Stage Sisters (1964)

Made in the time immediately preceding the Cultural Revolution, this film was a precursor to Farewell My Concubine (1993). It opens in 1935, with an itinerant opera troupe performing on a makeshift stage in a rural inn-yard. A young woman named Zhu Chunhua seeks refuge with the small company and eventually becomes indispensable. She forms a close bond with the daughter of the performance director. When the two women are invited to sing for a rich landlord, he expects sexual services from them. Chunhua refuses and is arrested by the Kuomintang police. She is tied to a post in a town square for public humiliation. The Second Sino-Japanese War brings great hardship to the company, and the performance director dies. In 1941, the two singers, still innocent, are sold to an opera company in Shanghai, where they become popular stars. Chunhua remains humble, but her partner takes on airs, becoming the pampered mistress of the disreputable theater manager. The Japanese invasion is barely mentioned and it is the Kuomintang that is the repressive force in Shanghai. Chunhua is introduced to progressive ideas by a crusading journalist. Mao is never mentioned and communism remains in the background. Chunhua is attacked with a bag of lime and nearly blinded. She becomes radicalized and plans a women’s opera company that will perform progressive works. Further efforts are made to stop the formation of the new company. Her former partner, whom she calls her sister, is coerced to testify against her. The conclusion comes in 1950, the year following the declaration of the New China, and Chunhua is presenting her revolutionary operas. The theater manager has decamped to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek. The sisters are reunited and there is a tearful reconciliation. Despite its progressive themes and early appreciation, Two Stage Sisters was viewed as bourgeois entertainment by the Cultural Revolution. Rehabilitation began after Mao’s death in 1976, and today it is considered a classic.

No trailer is available.

A constant presence on my list of movies about China is the work of Zhang Yimou (say Zhong Yim-oh).  Born in 1951, he is at the forefront of a generation of filmmakers that emerged after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Their films reflect on China’s past and present with a new freedom and greatly increased access to moviemaking technologies.  Two of his films have already been covered in Movies about the Chinese Imperial Dynasties. He has also made two movies about the hardships faced by ordinary citizens in the time that followed the rule of the emperors. There is an emphasis in these works on the trials faced by women in a slowly changing male dominant culture.

Ju Dou  (1990) – Zhang Yimou

Famous for its use of Technicolor long after it was discontinued in Hollywood, this film celebrates color.  Set in the early 20th century, it opens in a fabric-dying shop in what might be an average Chinese industrial city.  The cruel owner of the shop has killed his first two wives and has now purchased a pretty new wife (Gong Li).  The man’s obedient nephew returns from a trip to the city to sell fabric and becomes infatuated with the pretty wife, named Ju Dou (say Zhoo Doe).  He is appalled by his uncle’s treatment of the girl but is too timid to do much about it.

The girl takes the initiative and seduces the young man. Their affair results in a pregnancy.  The uncle thinks the child is his and rejoices when a son is born. The lovers are afraid to ruin the family’s honor and keep their secret. When the uncle has a road accident and is paralyzed, his bitter nephew confines him in a half-barrel.  When the child is about three, he is playing with the old man that he thinks is his father and accidentally drags the cripple into a vat of dye, where he dies.  The parents keep their secret, fearing loss of face.  The boy grows into a large kid, sullen and angry. It ends with dispiriting violence. This film could be seen as an analog of the rise of a disenfranchised generation of belligerent males, free of imperial oppression and ripe for the generation wars of the Cultural Revolution. The Western trailer chooses only one slant on the story.

Raise the Red Lantern  (1991) – Zhang Yimou

This film was highly regarded in the West for its artistry. It is beautifully photographed and deeply atmospheric. The story follows a nineteen-year-old girl who must leave the university when her father dies and become the Fourth Mistress of a feudal master. This happens in the 1920s, the Warlord Era, and the brazen attitude of the young girl toward her master is as surprising as his tolerance.  The film progresses through four seasons of jealousy and intrigue among the four mistresses.

 The Painted Veil  (2006)

An American film, based on a 1925 novel by W. Somerset Maugham, this romantic adventure is set in 1925 with flashbacks to two years earlier.  Edward Norton and Naomi Watts play a young British couple.  He is a medical researcher and she is a minor aristocrat who marries only to escape her meddling mother.  They move to colonial Shanghai where he has a laboratory.  Fairly quickly the bored Naomi falls into an affair with a man of their acquaintance.  Norton feels deeply betrayed and takes a kind of emotional revenge by manipulating her into accompanying him when he must go to a rural area to help with a serious cholera epidemic.  Naomi is indifferent to the suffering at first but gradually finds herself drawn to helping the afflicted. She volunteers to help at a Catholic convent that is tending to the sick.  The very warm and compassionate Mother Superior is played by Diana Rigg. This is the Western lens, focused on the emotional lives of the colonialists while the Chinese people are mere backdrop. The Chinese Civil War is soon to follow and the British will be left in the dust. The film ends sadly.

The King of Masks  (1997)

This fine Chinese movie opens in a city in Sichuan Province of the 1930s, at a time of festivity.  A famous female impersonator from the opera, called the “Living Bodhisattva” – embodiment of the Goddess of Mercy, is being carried through the streets on a palette.  He comes upon an old man who practices the art of mask transformations.*  Later he goes to lunch with the man and begs to learn his art. The old man says he can only teach his secrets to his heir, but he has none. On the black market, he is offered several sad children.  He takes a boy to be his grandson and begins the training, but soon discovers the child is a girl.  He tries to go off on his boat and leave the girl, but he cannot do it. He begins to train her as an acrobat/contortionist. They work the streets where he does his transformations.  He takes her to the opera to see his friend the impersonator. They grow fond of one another, but the old man still wishes she were a boy. She asks why he worships the Bodhisattva goddess if she has not a teapot spout like a little boy.

While the old man is away, she plays with the masks and accidentally sets fire to the boat, destroying all the masks. Grandpa must return to his life as an organ grinder with a monkey. Wandering the streets, the girl is taken by child kidnappers. She finds herself locked up with a little boy. They escape and she takes the boy to Grandpa then runs off. Grandpa is arrested for kidnapping the child and taken to jail.  He is beaten and forced to confess to many kidnappings. The girl goes to the Living Bodhisattva to plead for help. There are serious difficulties but she succeeds in getting the old man released. He is reunited with his granddaughter and decides to teach her the tradition of the masks.

*From the Caravan Journals: On the evening of our arrival in Chengdu to visit the panda sanctuary, we were treated to a variety show at the Sichuan Opera featuring mask transformations. It is a very remarkable folk art. The dancer appears in a brightly colored face mask. He waves his hand in front of the mask and in a flash it changes to a different face in different colors. It happens repeatedly during the performance and it never gets less amazing to an audience that has never seen it before. MasksWe had thought we had an edge because we had seen The King of Masks already, but the transformations were still startling. Unfortunate efforts at revealing the secrets of face-mask-changing can be found on Google.

The Goddess  (1934) – Chinese

This film suffered neglect during the Cultural Revolution but has earned much respect since that time. “Goddess” is a euphemism for prostitute on the streets of China.  The title character is a poor woman in 1930s Shanghai struggling to make a better life for her young son. The film was not well received at first but today holds a place of honor in Chinese cinema. It is a document of its times.

 From Pearl S. Buck: The Good Earth (1937), Dragon Seed (1944)

The novels of Pearl S. Buck enjoyed great popularity and considerable respect in the 1930s and 40s. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. The subjects of her best-known works were respectable Chinese peasants struggling against forces beyond their control. Her early major success was The Good Earth (1931), and it has remained a literary classic. The film based on the novel appeared in 1937. It was a modest success, though there were controversies involving the hiring of Hollywood actors in major roles as Chinese farmers, and there were objections from the Chinese government ultimately requiring the film to be shot in rural California. Luise Rainer won the Best Actress Academy Award for her role as the obedient wife.

Dragon Seed was made seven years after The Good Earth and likewise has a cast of Hollywood actors pretending to be Chinese. Katharine Hepburn is a young wife named Jade who has ideas of independence. The film is set in 1937, a time when Japanese invasions threatened the Chinese way of life.  At the center of the drama is an old couple with several children. Jade is married to one of their sons, who is a revolutionary firebrand. He becomes a leader of the resistance to the Japanese occupation.  Others in the family are not so idealistic and they betray the father and son to a brother-in-law who works for the occupation government, called “the conqueror.” Hepburn later has the occasion to deliver an impassioned speech about how all of these good people are driven to barbarism by the depredations of the conquerors. The father (Walter Huston) gets a speech on a similar theme. The family must abandon their home and burn their household.  They escape with only what they can carry.  As they turn and look back, they see that all the others in their village have done the same – burning their homes to resist the Japanese. The comedy of Hepburn’s distinctive vocal patterns in the mouth of the virtuous Jade is irresistible. The scripting is formulaic to say the least, and the dialog overly formal. This wartime film was meant to show the Chinese as sympathetic victims of the evil Japanese. It came as a shock sometime later when China went Communist.

 Two other films on my list play out against the early stages of the Japanese invasion. They are The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958) and The White Countess (2005). The first one stars Ingrid Bergman and was filmed entirely in Wales. The second one stars Natasha Richardson and Ralph Fiennes and is set in the cabaret world of Shanghai on the eve of the invasion. It is really very good.

The Rape of Nanking

There are two Chinese films that deal directly with the worst atrocity of the Sino-Japanese War and help to explain the lingering antipathy between China and Japan. The first is a docudrama called City of Life and Death (2009) and the second, appearing two years later, is The Flowers of War (2011), made by  Zhang Yimou. Both films seek to carry their message to the Western market by featuring real-life Americans who heroically helped to save groups of Chinese women from the terrible violence. The capture of Nanking (also called Nanjing) happened in 1937. The Japanese occupation of China lasted until 1945.

 Back to 1942 (2012) – Chinese

It’s hard to imagine this movie being popular with teens at the Cineplex or couples out for dinner and a date in a large city. It is a powerful account of the hardships faced by the Chinese people during the years of World War II. At the center of this story is the terrible drought that afflicted the province of Henan between 1942 and 1944. It was also in this time that the area was under siege by the Japanese in the Second Sino-Japanese War. Based on the Chinese novel, Remembering 1942, the film follows the ordeal of the family of a prosperous landlord named Master Fan. They lose everything as the famine drives people to desperation and they are forced to join a long procession of refugees seeking relief. Scenes at the headquarters of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek demonstrate the lack of priority Henan Province had in his military strategies. Theodore H. White (Adrian Brody) arrives on the scene, reporting for Time magazine, and takes the role of heroic newsman risking his life to document the sufferings of the people of Henan. Tim Robbins plays a cameo role as a European Catholic missionary trying to make sense of God’s intentions in this time of human catastrophe. Things get so bad for the refugees between Japanese bombings and starvation that some have resorted to cannibalism. After White’s reports are published in his magazine, Chiang Kai-shek belatedly bows to pressure from the US and elsewhere and sends aid to Henan. Master Fan, meanwhile, has lost all the members of his family and is last seen walking alone on the road back to his homeland. He comes upon a little girl kneeling over the body of her mother and offers to take her home as his granddaughter. A final narration from the invisible author states that the little girl grew up to become his mother. Three million people died in the famine. Critics were not kind to this film, appearing to feel this was more than they needed to know about the grim realities of wartime China. There was little attention paid to the careful balance established in this film between the worldwide prosecution of the war and the tragedy endured by one family on the road to an unmarked end.

Part II

After the end of World War II, China was a wounded and divided nation. Various attempts were made to achieve accord between the factions but they only resulted in more division. This  came to an end when the victorious Mao Zedong declared the formation of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. In the tradition of Emperor Qin in 221 BCE, the country was once again unified as a sovereign state.

The Founding of a Republic  (2009)

This is a historical film made by the state-owned China Film Group to mark the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. It focuses on the years 1945 to 1949, beginning with a landmark effort by Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek that would make them allies in the effort to rebuild a unified China. Both men had led their respective armies in long years of civil war and resistance to the Japanese invasion. When the alliance failed, each of them was named as the leader of the new China and civil war was resumed. Chiang’s Republic of China (ROC) was headquartered at Nanjing.  The film spends little time on scenes of war, instead dwelling on large and small military and political meetings. In the end, the Red Army defeats Chiang’s ROC forces and Mao declares the formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949 from a balcony overlooking Tiananmen Square. Chiang and his loyalists go to Taiwan to form their Chinese government in exile.

This film is often labeled as Chinese propaganda, but I think that is not really fair. It is a celebration of the founding of a major world republic. Not surprisingly, it emphasizes the positive and minimizes or ignores the negative. The popular film shown at the visitors’ center for Independence Hall in Philadelphia does pretty much the same thing. Chiang Kai-shek is the primary adversary in this presentation and he is treated with dignity and balance. The United States is also represented with respect for the delicacy of its position in this situation. This is a Chinese film and the greatest reverence is reserved, of course, for Chairman Mao and his contribution to the grandfathering of a new China. He was a stern, unforgiving patriarch, and many of his policies for change took a terrible toll on the people he governed.

See also The Founding of a Party, or Beginning of the Great Revival (2011). 

Among the least proud moments of modern Chinese history is the Cultural Revolution perpetrated by Chairman Mao from 1966 to 1976, the year of his death. This was an attempt to purge bourgeois ideas and attitudes, especially those of the decadent West, from the Chinese state of mind. The best known and most powerful movie on this theme is Farewell My Concubine, which appears at the top of this post. There is also an episode on the Cultural Revolution in The Red Violin (1998). Today in China, it is possible to attend a traditional opera, hear western music, and practice the religion of your choice.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress  (2002)

In this tale of the Cultural Revolution, two young men are sent to a remote village in Sichuan Province for re-education. They surreptitiously bring Western novels and music along with them. Both fall in love with a “little seamstress.” The years after the revolution bring sadness and separation, though the two men become successful. When news of the Three Gorges Dam and the flooding of the Yangtze reaches one of them, he travels back to the village before his memories are submerged.

To Live  (1994) – Zhang Yimou

It opens in 1949 with a man named Fugui, from the landlord class, gambling in a restaurant with a man who runs a shadow puppet theater. His wife begs him to quit gambling and come home. He returns to her but not before he has lost his home and all their money. She leaves him but they are reconciled after he does penance. He has acquired the puppets from the man who took his home. He enters the People’s Army and survives the war. It is 1949 and Mao defeats Chiang Kai-shek.  The 1950s saw the disastrous Great Leap Forward. The family has a mute daughter and a mischievous boy who disrupts the puppet shows. The boy is killed in a vehicle accident.  The film jumps abruptly to 1966 and the Great Cultural Revolution. Fugui is told to get rid of his puppets because they are ancient feudal types. He burns them. There is a Maoist wedding for their daughter.  The couple has a baby. The Red Guards control the birth and things go wrong. Doctors have been disallowed as reactionaries.  The mother dies.  Some years pass. Fugui and his young grandson help to care for the ailing grandmother.  The grandparents, son-in-law, and grandson enjoy a simple meal in their modest dwelling.

The generations of filmmakers that followed the Cultural Revolution have explored the splendors and upheavals of China’s past and created a nuanced portrait of the present.  My list is dominated by films from Zhang Yimou and I will highlight two of them.

The Story of Qiu Ju  (1992) – Zhang Yimou

The story begins with a pregnant Qiu Ju (say Cue Zhoo) delivering her husband in a cart to a village doctor. They report that the husband had an argument with the village chief and was kicked in the groin. The doctor says he will be okay in time and sends him home with some medicine. Qiu Ju (Gong Li) is angry at the insult done to her family and wants satisfaction. She tries several levels of local officials and gets some help, but what she wants is an apology from the chief.  Her husband is exasperated with her dogged determination but remains docile. Qiu Ju returns to their chili pepper farm as she is due to have her baby.  When the birth goes badly, the chief is called upon to help save mother and baby from death. Villagers carry Qiu Ju through the snow to a clinic. She is full of gratitude to the chief and invites him and his family to the one-month birthday of the baby. At the celebration, she learns that the chief has been charged with assault of her husband and taken away by the police. She runs across the snowy hills in an attempt to intervene but it is too late. There are times when it seems that someone ought to talk a little sense into this woman. She has caused much unhappiness. Still, it is a rich and human portrait of rural life in China in the last decade of the 20th century. See also The Road Home (2000) for another Yimou film on village life.

Shower  (1999)

The Road Home  (2000) – Zhang Yimou

Electric Shadows  (2004)

The World  (2004)

Still Life  (2006)

Up the Yangtze  (2007)

Last Train Home  (2009)

Shun Li and the Poet (2011)

 

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles  (2005) – Zhang Yimou

An interesting convergence of Chinese and Japanese film, this is the story of a Japanese man who learns that his son is dying. He goes to the hospital in China at the request of his daughter, but is rebuffed by the son. The young man has been engaged in making a film about Chinese folk opera and the father decides to go to China and finish the work. He must find a prisoner in a Chinese jail who can perform the traditional song, “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.” With the help of a pretty translator, he finds the prisoner but the man cannot perform the work in mask and robes because he is distraught over his separation from his young son.

The Japanese man travels to a remote Chinese village to find the eight-year-old boy. With extraordinary support from Chinese officials, he gets permission to take the boy to the prison. The  resentful boy refuses to cooperate and in the process there is a bonding between the old man and the abandoned son. The boy is left in his village and the old man departs only to learn that his own son has died. He has left his father a letter of reconciliation. The old man returns to the prison to show the singer digital photos of his young son. Tears flow among the assembled prisoners. There is no longer a need to film the song, but the prisoner insists on putting on the mask and robes. He performs “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” from the 14th century Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It is the story of a journey for forgiveness in a foreign land, a small reconciliation between China and Japan

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Hong Kong:

There are many movies from Hong Kong in the time when the city’s film industry thrived at the end of the 20th Century, but there are few movies on my list that are about Hong Kong. Two movies from the 1950s do a better job than any others I have found. They are Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955) and The World of Suzie Wong (1960), based on a 1957 novel and subsequent stage play. Both of these films star William Holden and take up the issue, sensitive in that time, of interracial romance.  This is the time of the British occupation. No satisfactory trailers are available.

P1290527From the Caravan Journals: November 2012. Immediately on our arrival in Hong Kong, we went to the waterfront and rode across the harbor on the Star Ferry, just as William Holden had done in the opening scenes of Suzie Wong. It had been over fifty years since I saw that movie, and I remembered very little of it. But suddenly, as the boat slid over the calm waters, I was seized with the feeling that I had been there before. The vicarious experience came before the real experience and now, though the skyline has changed, the two are fused in my memory as one.

Toward the end of the 20th Century, Hong Kong achieved a niche in the world movie market for its high-intensity action adventure movies. Best known among these are the kung fu films featuring Bruce Lee, and later, Jackie Chan.

The Killer (1989) is a Hong Kong movie filmed in and around the city. Bathed in violence, it was appreciated by connoisseurs of this genre as a prototype for the Hong Kong brand of cinema. It stars Hong Kong superstar, Chow Yun-fat. Among others, it was inspired by Martin Scorsese and was an inspiration for Quentin Tarantino. It is the polar opposite of Love is a Many Splendored Thing.

Chinese Box  (1997)

Jeremy Irons stars in this story revolving around the British departure from Hong Kong. It opens on New Year’s Eve 1996 as the clock ticks down to the Chinese take-over. Irons is at a nightclub party where a young student leaps to a stage and fires a revolver into his own mouth. In the ensuing weeks, Irons learns that he is facing an early death from leukemia. He is alone in the world and spends the rest of the movie in and out of one unpleasant and unsatisfying relationship after another. There are occasional references to pervasive fears of what will happen to Hong Kong’s freedoms after the official take-over ceremonies in June 1997. He appears to die at the end but it is never easy to tell what is happening in this movie. I don’t know what the title means. The film is loosely based on a novel by Paul Theroux. It was made during the time of the 1997 take-over.

Can’t find a good trailer, but here is a taste of Hong Kong under the opening credits of the movie.


At the same time that I completed this segment of MovieJourneys, The New York Times ran an article about the opening of an art exhibition in Hong Kong called “A Hundred Years of Shame – Songs of Resistance and Scenarios for Chinese Nations.” It dwells on the period between the end of the First Opium War  in 1842 and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. This was “a century of humiliation’ for China, when the country was dominated by foreign powers, primarily the British and Japanese. The Times says this:

Although more than six decades have passed, this narrative of humiliation at the hands of

foreign powers continues to set the tone for China’s interaction with much of the outside world.

Kung Fu Hustle  (2004) – Hong Kong-Chinese

Notable primarily for its foul language and raucous violence, this film was an international success. In distant echoes of samurai dreams and Hong Kong action cinema, writer-director Stephen Chow plays an inept young man with aspirations to join a malevolent gang. It is a martial arts parody with the added use of axes, guns, and other weaponry. Fragments of Buddhist teaching are mixed into the mayhem. The primary setting is Pigsty Alley. It all careens toward a surprisingly sentimental ending. The movie was shot in Shanghai.

Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) – Taiwanese

Directed by Ang Lee, this Taiwanese film is a tapestry of family events. The patriarch of the Chinese family is an old widower with three beautiful daughters. He is a master chef, now retired, and cooks for his family. Even though there is a steady stream of dramatic situations, there is not much intensity here. One of the sisters has a high-paying corporate job, and another teaches in a school. There is a lot of talk of love lost and love unfound. What is most fascinating here is that except for what they eat, this movie could as easily be set anywhere in the developed world. It was shot in Taipei.

I think some visitors to this website may pass on the film below, so I am including my full review. There is some good cinema anthropology to be taken from observations of cultural patterns that can be found at other Destinations on this website.

Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (2011) – Taiwanese

 Netflix said only this: “This vivid drama tells the true story of the 1930s rebellion of the Taiwanese aboriginal Seediq tribe against the Japanese occupation.” This is clearly a bid to be a national epic for Taiwan, and a monumental effort by writer-director Wei Te-Sheng. It opens with a capsule account of the Chinese ceding of Taiwan to the Japanese in 1895, then it moves quickly to 35 years later, depicting the unrest of aboriginal clans under Japanese domination. The clans have been generally submissive, correctly perceiving the superior firepower of the Japanese military. They are also fighting amongst themselves, putting them in a weakened position.

A revered chieftain and a new generation of warriors bring together a small but determined fighting force of 300 men, and a campaign of guerrilla warfare is mounted against Japanese police stations and military installations. The Japanese augment their defenses and the level of warfare escalates. There is a key scene involving a discussion between two aboriginals in which they express their resentment of the imposition of “civilization” on their lives, and paradoxically, their desire not to be seen as savages. The Japanese use the exact same language, seeing themselves as the defenders of civilization against the savagery of the aborigines. The civilization/savage motif is constant throughout the movie.

This condensed version of the much longer film runs for two and a half hours and I think it would be fair to say that close to two hours of it is taken up with a Homeric orgy of slaughter. Machetes flash and heads go toppling off in all directions. Both sides have guns. There is a moving scene in which the tribeswomen perceive the necessity for them to commit suicide so that resources can be freed for their husbands. They go off into the forest to hang themselves from trees, while their children beg them not to do it. Though the 300 warriors inflict grave damage on the Japanese, superior firepower prevails and blood spills into rivers. The savagery of the Japanese outweighs the savagery of the aborigines and civilization takes one step backward.

A print legend at the end provides an update on the Wushe Incident of 1930. Ultimately, over a thousand Seediq died. The influence of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is readily seen in this film, even including the Cirque du Soleil mystical singing. Wiki says it was the most expensive film production in Taiwanese history. The filmmaker’s sympathies are clearly with the aborigines.

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