Taiwan is, and should be, Asia’s best hope. Take its democracy. Ever since the first legislative election in 1991 and the presidential election in 1996 after the 1949-imposed martial law was lifted in 1987, Taiwan has, in an orderly and democratic manner, switched the nation’s ruling party three times. This is quite a feat, compared even to Japan’s democratic but long one-party rule by the Liberal Democrats, or India’s vigorous but ever-messy democracy. Most of Southeast Asia, unfortunately, has not yet experienced full representative democracy, including super-modern Singapore. Taiwan’s democracy is all the more precious, like a gem, because it may now fall under the dark shadow of an expansionist, tyrannical China, which remains, at least in the political sphere, an obstinate communist dictatorship.
Taiwan’s flowering democratic culture is on display not only in its high politics but also in its culture. Case in point: some recent Taiwanese movies, particularly those directed or produced by Wei Te-Sheng.
Wei Te-Sheng, born in 1969, conjured up a romantic comedy titled Cape No. 7 in 2008, at the age of 38. It turned out to be an historic blockbuster, earning the equivalent of $16 million (U.S.), in Taiwan. Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale followed in 2011; it was the biggest-ever production in Taiwanese film history, claimed the best picture award at the country’s Golden Horse Film Festival and other awards, and was short-listed for best picture at the Venice Film Festival in Italy. This four-and-a-half-hour epic also set a box office record of $27 million. Both films vied for Oscar Foreign Language Film in their respective year of screening. Wei’s most recent production is a baseball epic, KANO, set in colonial Taiwan. It scored another huge hit when it came out two years ago.
With these three films, Wei Te-sheng has opened a new era for Taiwanese cinema, which gained ground in the 1980s during the “Taiwan New Wave” started by Hou Hsio-Hsien and others, but which lost steam thereafter, with the local market share of Taiwan’s film market dropping to a dismal 1.6 percent in 2006. Cape No. 7 pushed up the local film share to 12.1 percent of the market in 2008.
A stunning aspect of Wei’s masterpieces for a foreign viewer like me is that they are multilingual, regardless of his Taiwanese audience’s linguistic capabilities. The breakthrough romance Cape No. 7 opens with a narration in Japanese. A male voice reads a letter written in December 1945, apparently addressed to his lover. Soon after, the audience learns that the movie is about two overlapping love stories, involving characters of different ages and different time periods: one between an aspiring Taiwanese rock singer and a Japanese girl model in contemporary Taiwan; and the other, a bitter one between a recently departed Japanese teacher and his former Taiwanese student in the closing days of Japanese colonial rule. The old love story is mostly narrated by a male voice, reading undelivered old letters from the teacher to his love, while the modern comical romance develops in the characteristic bilingual surroundings of the southern Taiwan town of Hengchun. There, older people speak Taiwanese Hokkien, which was effectively banned under Kuomintang rule as an unauthorized language, while the younger people mainly use Mandarin. The movie, therefore, is trilingual, with Mandarin subtitles.
More cumbersome perhaps is the middle-school baseball drama KANO, almost totally in Japanese, a colonial language, which was basically banned from the culture under martial law until 1987. The story is about a Taiwanese team that advanced to the final game in the 1931 National High School Baseball Championship in Imperial Japan. Although Taiwanese older than eighty may still speak Japanese, it is a totally irrelevant, foreign language for other age groups, particularly for the mainlanders who came to Taiwan after 1949 and their offspring, now comprising some 14 percent of the population. For them it was the enemy tongue, much better forgotten than spoken.
Furthermore, the award-winning epic film Warriors of the Rainbow, which depicts the 1931 aboriginal uprising against Japanese rule, is about 90 percent in the aboriginal Seediq language, with 10 percent in Japanese. Both languages are incomprehensible for most Taiwanese viewers today without subtitles.
All three movies, however, reflect both the historical and modern linguistic realities of Taiwan. All were widely accepted by Taiwan moviegoers, and the works confirm and uphold the linguistic and cultural diversity of this island nation. As a note to help readers outside of East Asia, Taiwan Hokkian, Japanese, and Seediq belong to totally different language groups: The first is a Chinese dialect; the second lies within the same group as Turkish and Mongolian; and the third is closest to languages spoken in South Pacific islands. They are much more different from each other than are, say, English and Russian.
It is not only this “multi-linguality,” but also the multi-ethnicity of the actors that is stunning. Cape No. 7 features the leading character, Aga, an aspiring rock singer played by Van Fan, an aboriginal Amis singer-song-writer. The leading actress is multilingual Japanese Chie Tanaka, who plays Tomoko, Aga’s lover. Other major roles in the movie are played not only by various aboriginal actors and actresses—for example, aboriginal Paiwan actors perform as a policeman father and son, both musicians—but also by local Taiwanese, Hakka, and mainlander Chinese as well as Japanese. By just watching this romantic comedy a viewer can learn how Taiwan achieved its multi-ethnic and multicultural society over the past few decades without much ado, a fact the world outside Taiwan little knows or appreciates. Consider how other Asian societies today are still struggling with ethnic and religious minorities. Even Japan has not yet come to complete terms with its Korean and aboriginal Ainu minorities.
Cape No. 7 symbolically ends with a successful beach concert played by a hastily formed band composed of Aga and other members of various ethnicities, in which ethnic Taiwanese Aga and Japanese Tomoko reveal themselves as lovers on the outdoor stage on the beach. The rainbow spread over the sea the final scenes speaks subtly but emblematically.
KANO, set in colonial Taiwan, is more explicitly a story about multi-ethnicity and the cultural strength it generates, though it is a typical gutsy ballgame drama based on a true story about Hyotaro Kondo, a renegade Japanese baseball coach who trained an underdog team of southern Taiwan’s Kagi Norin (Agriculture and Forestry) Institute. He recruited from among the Institute’s ethnic students to form a mixed Japanese-Taiwanese-aboriginal team, insisting that balanced multi-ethnicity would make the team stronger. Although some of his seniors sneer at the idea, the underdog team soon proves Kondo right by winning the championship in the local Taiwan tournament.
Little was expected of this top Taiwanese team in the 1931 National High School Championship. Some sportswriters even laughed at this ragtag team from the backwoods of colonial Taiwan. Yet as the team won game after game throughout the tournament, not only the crowd at Koshien Baseball Stadium near Kobe where the games were held, but also the whole Japanese Empire listening to the live radio broadcast, became excited by this powerful multi-ethnic team. Though the Kano—abbreviation of Kagi Norin—lost the final game due to its ace pitcher’s finger injury, the whole of Japan’s acclaim went to this ragtag Taiwan team rather than to the tournament champion.
The movie’s backdrop is Japan’s long war (1931–45) in Asia. The baseball epic starts with a scene of Taiwan in 1944. A Japanese army captain, who was the ace pitcher of a northern Japan school team from Hokkaido, confronted with Kano in the 1931 tournament, visits the backwoods town of Kagi (Jiayi), Kano’s hometown. He was on his way, along with locally recruited aborigine soldiers, to the Philippines for doomed battles with Allied forces. He starts reminiscing about the great games played by Kano, as he saw for the first time the denuded, dusty practice ground of the Kano team from which the multi-ethnic team started its long journey to the final game for the national championship at Koshien more than a dozen years earlier.
The ending titles show the afterlives of the Kano team players, one by one. Some would shine as well-known players or coaches in the professional or amateur baseball world, either in Taiwan or in Japan during and after World War II. Others perished on the battlefields. The baseball epic ends like American Graffiti, and leaves one with a serene afterglow reminiscent of Field of Dreams.
Warriors of the Rainbow is not about multi-ethnicity, but rather about just one ethnic tribe’s fate. The story of its destiny reminds us of the fact that the traditional value system of any ethnic group, however small, emits universal tones.
The epic story starts with Japan’s victory over the Qing Dynasty of China in the 1894–95 Sino-Japanese War. Japan used its military might to force modernization on the island, long neglected by the feudal Qing. The movie depicts the 1930 Mushe Incident, an aboriginal Seediq uprising against Japanese rule. Avenging repeated insults by Japanese police, Seediq rebels led by Chief Mouna Rudao attacked an athletic meet at an elementary school in a mountainous area, killing 134 Japanese, including women and children. Thousands of Japanese troops were sent to gain control, yet ensuing battles with Seediqs retreating into the mountains became protracted. Eventually Japan used its air force, dropping mustard gas bombs, to suppress the uprising after a month. Some 640 Seediq died, 290 of which were the result of suicide to avoid dishonor.
Wei Te-sheng splendidly represents aboriginal values in the person of Mouna Rudao. The role is played by Lin Ching-tai, who is not a professional actor but an aboriginal Presbyterian minister. Mouna Rudao knew the uprising meant annihilation of the whole tribe, for he had once been invited to Japan to see the all-leveling might of modernization. He came to the conclusion, however, that living dishonorably, subjugated to the Japanese and modernization, was worse than the total annihilation of the tribe. By standing up, you could eternalize your values, your honor, your loyalty to your ancestors. You would pay everlasting respect to your traditions, even though they might be totally wiped out in this mundane world; you would be a Seediq Bale, a true man, by crossing “the bridge of the rainbow,” even if you should be killed doing it.
Interestingly, that was what some Japanese, such as Takamori Saigo, did just half a century ago. One of the leaders of modernization, Saigo led the last samurai rebellion against the modernizing Meiji Japan in 1877. Saigo knew total eventual defeat was inevitable, but he rebelled anyway, precisely in order to eternalize those exquisite traditional values that were upheld universally in pre-modernity, according to an interpretation by Japanese literary critic Jun Eto. A Japanese viewer of Warriors of the Rainbow may well understand the inner logic of such values in the minds of tribal heroes. In the final scene, a Japanese commander involved in suppressing the uprising says to himself that he saw the samurai spirit, now lost in Japan, in these Taiwan mountains, as preserved by Chief Mouna Roudao and his men.
This epic film does not depict ethnic identity but universality, Wei Te-shen suggested to a Japanese film critic. The movie is not dichotomous in the sense that it represents Japan and modernization as evil versus Seediq and the tribal culture as good. Some Japanese officers are portrayed as very empathetic. Two Seediq men, who were educated in Japanese normal school and joined the police force, are represented not as traitors but as elitist Seediqs who waver between modernity and tradition.
Wei Te-sheng said that he had learned an attitude of not dichtomizing through his long research of aboriginal Seediq culture in preparation for the film. His long-time dream had been to make a film portraying the 1930 Mushe Incident. Cape No. 7 was made with a very modest budget in order to prepare funds to make Warriors of the Rainbow. Fortunately, the romantic comedy became the top grossing Taiwan movie to date, making it much easier to finance subsequent films.
The attitude Wei learned from Seediq culture is also reflected in Cape No. 7, although I doubt he is aware of it. He confided as much in an interview by a Japanese film critic; his understanding crept up on him as a byproduct of his art. Yet while making the romantic comedy and penning the scenario of the tribal epic, he decided to use the image of the rainbow as a common thread for the two very different movies.
All three of Wei Te-sheng’s films thus far not only broke new ground for the local Taiwan film industry but also for the country’s self-understanding of its still-congealing multi-ethnic and multicultural identity, which includes what colonial Japan brought to Taiwan’s culture and history. All three are about Taiwan and its colonial experience but none see things in simple black-and-white, friend-and-enemy terms. It seems that Wei sees the successes and failures of Japanese modernization efforts in the same way that many thoughtful Japanese see them. This sophisticated empathy is a stellar achievement of Taiwan’s new cinema, and, quite possibly, it rivals in sophistication film as both art and social commentary anywhere in the world.
As if to prove the point, Wei’s smash hit Cape No. 7 garnered strong demand, particularly from the young, in Singapore and Malaysia, both multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies. Its release date was moved up a month in the former while the film was nominated for best director and best Asian picture at the 2008 Kuala Lumpur International Film Festival, only to win the best cinematography award instead. It was also distributed in China and Hong Kong, yet Beijing’s hesitation to show it was obvious. It was screened as a censored and shortened version despite the fact that the full version circulated widely via rampant piracy.
Warriors of the Rainbow was more controversial in the West than in mainland China. Having seen its commercially shortened version (still 2.5-hour long), the Economist reviewer said the Taiwanese film showed “the highest number of graphic beheadings of any film anywhere” and “its violence is disturbing in the extreme.” The film critic was worried that the epic movie generated a surge of nationalism in Taiwan, as our colleague Walter Russell Mead also did in a short essay he posted for this magazine’s website. The New York Times review expressed concern over “the primitive philosophy of warfare glorified by this unabashedly nationalistic film.”
However, if there was unabashed nationalism in the film, whose nationalism was it? Those aboriginals, who compose a mere 2 percent of Taiwan’s population, had been ethnically cleansed and maltreated by Han Taiwanese throughout history. The tribe in the film was just a fractional part of the aboriginals. Who would call a film about a small Native American tribe’s historical uprising as an expression of American nationalism? Taiwanese depicted in the movie come off as badly or worse than the Japanese. One British expert on Taiwan rightly questioned repeated the criticism in the West concerning the film’s seeming celebration of Taiwanese nationalism. What we really see in this film, he argued, is Wei Te-sheng’s genuine determination to rescue aboriginal history.
Warrior of the Rainbow should be seen not in its abridged version, which commercially caters to a Western audience. In its totality, and if seen along with the other two of Wei Te-sheng’s masterpieces, the director’s message on behalf of multiculturality is clear. That is what Taiwanese viewers supported and what Beijing criticized as “Taiwanese nationalism,” which was a typically Orwellian branding act. Still, I understand that tribal pride for gross savagery in the movie appears in the Western eye to justify al-Qaeda/ISIS type anti-modernism, if it is not appreciated properly in the context of Wei Te-sheng’s whole works and the redefined history of Taiwan.
We know that the Taiwanese endeavor to reach this point of affirming their multicultural heritage has been continuous since the end of martial law in 1987, during which period the nation’s elite decided to write Taiwan’s history as distinct from the Chinese history that Taiwanese were obligated to learn under Kuomintang rule. Such efforts bore fruit, such as the well-known A New Illustrated History of Taiwan (1997) by Chou Wan-yao, which starts with aboriginal history. At the time of publication of the Japanese translation in 2006, Chou wrote that Taiwanese society was still very much divided due to different historical experiences, memories, and understandings of different ethnic groups. This is true not only of Taiwan, of course, but also of many other countries and of the world as a whole. Taiwan has, however, found the way to overcome the division. It is the cultivation of empathy, as depicted in Wei Te-sheng’s three great films.