Monday, June 25, 2012

Warriors of the Rainbow:Saadiq Bale (2011) NYAFF 2012

This is a replay of my feelings from last years Heaven's Story, which is a five hour film that I was kind negative on after I first saw it. Later on my opinion of the film changed and I found that while my original review was valid, I had to add an Addendum. A year later comes Warriors of the Rainbow and once more I find I can't change my first piece, but I have to add a piece mitigating my original thoughts.

This award winning film from Taiwan runs almost five hours uncut. It played in early May in New York in an edited version which removed two hours of material. I’m guessing that while it sped things up it reduced the plot to an after thought, leaving only the battle scenes, which, to my mind are the only reason to see this film.

A huge scale historical epic, the film tells what happened when the population of Taiwan was forced to bow down to the Japanese after the island nation was given to Japan by China in 1895.

As the film opens Japan takes possession of Taiwan. They then decide that the best way to get respect is a show of force and they march across the island brutalizing everyone in their path. The Taiwanese turn from battling each other to battling the Japanese. The effort is for naught and the Japanese gain control. Thirty years later tensions boil over and a small band of warriors decide to fight back against the Japanese.

I’ve just reduced a semi-complicated plot down to the most basic of descriptions. There is a great deal more going on about living free, honoring ancestors, mysticism, the evils of imperialism and a few other things… many of them involving large scale action set pieces of bands of warriors battling each other and Japanese soldiers.

And while I’ve reduced a complicated story down to a couple of lines, the filmmakers have reduced a complicated story down to its basic elements too, though while I reduced it to a paragraph, they made an almost five hour film that frequently seems like its never going to end. And while I think its way too long I can’t imagine what this looked like with two hours cut out of it which is how the version that played New York screened.

I know many people love this film, I know the film has won numerous prestigious awards, at the same time this film is a dramatic mess. The film simply reduces everyone and everything to easy to digest bites that make it easy to get their point across. The Japanese are bad (which they were)… no not just bad, cartoony bad. There is something about some of the portrayals that seem almost silly. There is no grey area they are simply bad because they are there and are Japanese. While I’m not siding with the Japanese or the idea of imperialism, the portrayal of the them is so one note as to be ridiculous.

Things are better, slightly, on the other side. The Saadiq Bale (“real human” of the title), the native warriors are the good guys, some better than others (one Saadiq sides with the Japanese). They are spiritually righteous even to the point that they literally sing songs with their dead ancestors. (and I won’t go into one on the final images which will either move you or give you fits of laughter). The clash of cultures is the sort of thing that you could probably write in your sleep and after a while I just wanted to say get on with it.

And then every now and again we are blessed with some large scale action/battle sequence. While some of the sequences are a bit too amped up, the opening hunting/ battle with opposing clan sequence is scored as if it were a vital late in the game do or die battle, and others seem uneven, the Japanese village sequence that closes the first half alternates between realistic and TV movie-sque, most are nasty violent confrontations where we often feel the cost.  I won’t go into the over use of computer generated imagery)

As good as some pieces are I don’t think that the film adds up to much. The cliché plot lines don’t really bring you into the battle sequences they way they should. The gee whiz mystic good guys vs the cartoon bad guys lessens all the characters as well since no one ever feels wholly real.

And I don’t want to get into the marathon running time. All I say is that I’m amazed that not only has director Wei Te-Sheng and producer John Woo fashioned a film that is not only too long by half , but they did so in such away that I can’t conceive of a single way of cutting it any shorter without wrecking what does work.

I really don’t like this film…no not dislike, more I really just don’t care about it. It’s a feeling that’s grown since I saw it. It’s a great story, blown all out of proportion. It misses for me.

It's been a couple of weeks since I wrote the preceding. In the intervening time I've thought a great deal about the film.  I find that I've softened on the film. In many ways I like the film more than I did to start. The one thing I can't get past is the films long length. I still don't know why this film is five hours long. There is a good story here, and if the right person could recut the film, I think this a could be a great film. (on the other hand this is a great film in the mind of many people).  Its worth seeing, though I'm not sure you need to do it in one sitting.

Additionally you may want to know that one of the segments in 10+10 is about the film premiere at Venice

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