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'Seediq Bale': Taiwan's biggest movie sparks indigenous tourism
Interview with the director and indigenous actors of Taiwan's foreign-language Oscar hopeful
But it doesn't feel gratuitous. The US$25 million production set in the 1930s is ultimately about the spiritualism of an indigenous headhunting tribe in Taiwan -- the Seediq.
The native people believe in bloodshed as the ticket into their version of Heaven. Only by taking an enemy's head in battle can one cross the mythical rainbow bridge into the heavenly hunting grounds.
"Seediq Bale" is the follow-up to Wei's mega-hit "Cape No. 7." It follows the Seediq tribe before and after the occupation of their lands by Japanese imperial forces.
Life before the Japanese occupation is passionate and wildly beautiful; battles fought under blood-red sakura blossoms, pig hunting along pristine mountain streams, lusty boozing on mountain passes.
It's great advertisement for indigenous tourism in Taiwan.
Under Japanese colonization, life for the Seediq is robbed of its meaning. Hunting grounds are logged, indigenous culture is deemed barbaric and young warriors are denied the rights to earn their headhunting tattoos -- their passport across the rainbow bridge.
“In death, enemies become friends,” says protagonist Mouna Rudo, the Seediq chief who bows to pressure to lead an uprising, based on a real incident in Wushe. The rebellion thus becomes a spiritual decision.
The heroism of the Seediq and the film's beautiful locations has attracted a wave of indigenous tourism in the east coast of Taiwan where more than 40 Amis aboriginal tribes reside today. Taiwan's tourism authority is looking into opportunities to develop the trend.
We asked director Wei and his three indigenous movie stars if the spirituality of Seediq Bale really still exists in Taiwan and how visitors might experience it.
Actor Umin Boya plays young Seediq warrior Temu Wallis; Lin Ching Tai, a modern-day Atayal village chief and pastor, plays the lead role of the older Mouna Rudo; Da Ching, also of the Atayal tribe, is a former truck driver who plays Mouna Rudo as a young man.
CNNGo: Director Wei, you were best known for making the romantic drama "Cape No. 7," what inspired you to make the action-packed "Seediq Bale"?
Wei Te-Sheng: I first read about the story of the Seediq Wushe uprising in a comic book and wondered why this story of Taiwan's history was never told.
In school we were only taught about history that stemmed from China. Very little was taught about Taiwan's aboriginal history.
Seediq Bale and the Wushe are a uniquely Taiwanese story. It was about death, redemption and reconciliation.
It's more spiritual than the usual hero story told in the West in Hollywood as it is about pursuing something that is beyond this earthly life.
CNNGo: How do indigenous Taiwanese react to the film?
Wei: When I was making this film I was worried about how indigenous people would accept it. I had to tread between what's historically accurate and what's acceptable, meaningful and comprehensible to a modern audience.
The very first screening of the film was presented to an indigenous audience. They were very impressed and they endorsed it.
When the film opened in Taiwan, indigenous Taiwanese came into town dressed up in traditional costumes to see the film.
Though the Seediq Bale tribe is just one of 14 tribes in Taiwan, "Seediq Bale" (meaning "real men") is now being used generically for all tribes as a symbol of unity.
CNNGo: Do the indigenous people still have the same spiritual beliefs as portrayed in your film?
Wei: I am not sure if people still believe in the rainbow bridge, but certainly on set, everyone wanted to be in the cross-the-rainbow-bridge scene, even though it was only a green screen bridge prop to be enhanced by computer generated graphics in post-production.
It became very important for the indigenous actors to be selected as participants in this scene. Those who did not participate were obviously upset. Some were crying. Afterwards, it wasn't even an option to edit this scene out of the film!
CNNGo: The Wushe precinct film set has become a popular tourist destination. Do you think this film has broadened perceptions on indigenous culture beyond tourism stereotypes?
Wei: Hopefully, the film will be a catalyst for the government to promote indigenous culture beyond singing and dancing.
Already, a friend from the Paiwan tribe is packaging a "no electricity tour"; visitors can have a deeper cultural experience, connecting with the landscape, hunting at night, learning survival skills and living in the same conditions experienced by the indigenous people.
CNNGo: Was it difficult to find the locations? Where did you shoot and does this Taiwan still exist outside of your film?
Wei: The actual area where the historical Wushe uprising took place is now a very commercial and touristy area and it was impossible to shoot there, so the locations are all over central and north eastern Taiwan.
We did use some CGI to enhance some of the locations as this is a more practical form of production from a logistical point of view. But for those who want to make the effort, all of these scenes can be found in Taiwan.
CNNGo: How is “Seediq Bale” culture expressed in Taiwan today and how can visitors to Taiwan experience this?
Umin Boya: Everyone of the Seediq and Atayal tribes knows of the religious and cultural origin of the rainbow bridge, but education and assimilation have lessened the intensity of this belief.
In modern times, the indigenous spirit is expressed in different ways -– film, art and music are a means of getting in touch with ones roots. "Seediq Bale" has created a surge in indigenous pride.
Before the film there was a gap between indigenous and Han Taiwanese. Since the film, the gap is less.
One obvious observation is people are now using their indigenous names in preference to their Chinese names, whereas in the past assimilation into mainstream society was a way of moving ahead.
Now people are proud of their indigenous roots. I hope the film bridges understanding, acceptance and unity. Education is key to achieve this.
Lin Ching Tai: Other than acts that are deemed as criminal such as headhunting and human sacrifice, the essence and aspects of the culture are still largely in tact.
This poses untapped opportunities to give the travel industry a boost of indigenous flavor. This will also enable the aboriginal people to contribute to society more directly.
There is still a lot of oversight and discrimination deriving from the ignorance towards indigenous people in Taiwan.
Da Ching: You can still experience the wealth of traditional culture in the aboriginal villages in the mountains.
Before being drafted into the army I lived in the mountains. My father and uncles taught me the basic survival skills and I participated in traditional activities like hunting, though not as hardcore as in the film where I wrestled a wild boar in a raging torrent.
We would hunt every week until a couple of my uncles got burnt while building a camp fire and then it became less attractive for the young people in our family to participate in the sport.
I consider the aboriginal cuisine to be exquisite and would like to introduce it to people. My favorite dish is banana and sticky rice. Wild vegetables and herbs also contribute greatly to the cuisine.
There is a lot of great game, though unfortunately the tastiest of meats are protected species. Many of the meat dishes like flying fox are on the endangered species list.
Top 5 Taiwan locations picked by Wei Te-Sheng
The mountains, the cherry blossom forest, the rainforests, gorges, pristine grasslands and waterfalls of "Seediq Bale" were shot all over north eastern and central Taiwan.
Director Wei picks his favorite places for capturing the spirit of "Seediq Bale:"
1) Yilan County's Taiping Mountain (Taiping Shan)
2) Taichung's Snow Pit River (Xue Shan Keng)
3) Taichung's Fu Shou Mountain (Fushou Shan)
4) Wulai in Northern Taiwan
5) Shimen Mountain (Shimen Shan) in Taroko National Park