Taiwan director's aboriginal epic breaks new ground

Taiwanese director Wei Te-sheng knows how to break records.His very first feature film was Taiwan's biggest ever blockbuster, while his second, now in theatres, is the island's most expensive production and looks set to top his own box office record.



Wei, 42, shot to fame in Taiwan after his romantic movie "Cape No. 7" beat all the odds to become a critical and commercial success in 2008, at a time when the island's flagging film industry was hit by a recession.

He wasted no time and jumped right into his next ambitious project "Seediq Bale", based on the true story of Taiwan's indigenous headhunters fighting against Japanese colonial forces in the 1930s.

"This is something I have always wanted to do since I first read a comic on the subject. I felt hot-blooded when I saw the history, the rebellion, and the ugly and contradictory side of humanity," Wei told AFP.

"The movie is more than conventional heroism. There is no absolute right or wrong in history. The Japanese are not absolute villains and the aborigines are not absolutely right."

Taiwan was ruled as a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945, but that history is usually seen from the perspective of the island's majority Han Chinese population, not its aborigines, who make up about two percent of the population.

Wei said he finished the script back in 1999 but had to put it aside due to a lack of funding to make the big-scale scenes he envisioned. That changed when the hit "Cape No. 7" helped bring in more investors.

The end product is a two-part, four-and-a-half hour movie that has again set many new records in Taiwanese cinema.

It is the first epic-length release and was the island's most expensive production, costing Tw$700 million ($24 million).

It is also the first movie with an aboriginal theme in an aboriginal dialect, which is completely different to Mandarin but related to languages spoken across the Pacific.

And it is also probably the bloodiest movie shot on the island, with numerous beheadings and other atrocities, justified by Wei as necessary in order to truthfully depict war and the headhunting culture of the past.

"Seediq" is the name of the mountain tribe, while "Seediq Bale" means a "real man" who has his face tattooed after killing an enemy, so after death he can cross the "rainbow bridge" that leads to his ancestors in the heaven.

"Killing is an act of revenge for others but for the aborigines the hatred is gone when the blood is drawn, and they ask the spirits of the killed to follow them to the rainbow bridge. In their belief it is not destruction or slaughter."

The film's first instalment, "The Sun Flag", opens with a hunting scene in the mountains in central Taiwan and progresses quickly to Japan taking over the island and waging harsh policies on the indigenous tribes, eventually leading to retaliation and, in the end, yet more oppression.

Shooting in the mountains was challenging, while securing enough funding to keep the production rolling was a constant struggle, Wei said, but it all paid off after rave reviews in Taiwan.

Wei is poised to smash his own box office record of Tw$530 million for "Cape No. 7", which is credited with rekindling the interest in local films, which for years lagged far behind offerings from Hollywood, Hong Kong and China.

"The Sun Flag" has raked in Tw$265 million in just two weeks since its opening on September 9 and the second instalment, "The Rainbow Bridge", will be released on September 30.

The "Seediq Bale" wave is sweeping Taiwan, from the central bank issuing commemorative coins on the Seediq tribe to travel agencies promoting tours to aboriginal sites and restaurants touting aboriginal cuisine.

The film has also attracted attention abroad after its premiere at the Venice film festival and its rights were sold to major European countries with discussions going on for the US and Chinese markets.

Wei, who had no formal film-making training and started out as a television production assistant, considers it a "big miracle" to see his career going this far.

"I believed that Taiwanese films would rise again and I had hoped to have a part in it and I did not expect that I would be so lucky," he said.

"Cape No. 7", which tells the story of the romance between a Taiwanese band player and a Japanese woman, was released in China in 2009 after some controversy over its Japan-related theme.

Wei said he was approached by some movie-industry people in China after the release of the film, which grossed $4.6 million on the mainland and was the number one Internet download there, but turned them down to focus on "Seediq Bale".

For his next project, Wei said he wanted to shoot a trilogy on Taiwanese history 400 years ago, or the island's favourite sport baseball, but he has not yet set a time table.

"I want to take a little break and go travelling," he said.

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