‘Warriors of the Rainbow’ star: From minister to leading man
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Lin Ching-Tai is a man of peace, a 52-year-old Presbyterian minister in Taiwan. But for the epic action film “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale,” he traded his vestments for tattoos and a fake scar, transforming into Taiwan’s legendary aboriginal chief, Mouna Rudo, who led a bloody rebellion against Japanese colonizers of the island in 1930.
“Mouna is a dark, melancholy character,” Lin said during a recent visit to Los Angeles, speaking in Chinese. “As a child, he saw how the Japanese suppressed his people, and the desire for rebellion grew in him.” Even though he had never acted before, Lin said he found the lead role easy to assume because “Mouna’s character is my character, before I was 26.”
The brainchild of director Wei Te-Sheng, “Warriors” was produced for $25 million, the most ever for a Taiwanese-made film, and released there in two parts totaling 4½ hours. For its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival last September, he prepared a 2½-hour cut, and it is that version that opened in Los Angeles on Friday. Much of the film is carried by Lin, who has the brooding eyes and craggy countenance of a man who has done a lot of hard living.
The film tells the story of the Wushe Incident, the largest — and last — uprising against the Japanese by the island’s aboriginal inhabitants. Taiwan had been ceded to Japan by China in 1895 in the Treaty of Shimonoseki. The Seediq tribe was forced to give up its sovereignty and to work for the Japanese at menial wages.
Getting the project off the ground proved a tough sell, even though Wei’s first film, the romantic comedy “Cape No. 7,” was a runaway hit in 2008. It didn’t help that he intended to cast unknowns with aboriginal backgrounds, and to use dialogue in Seediq, a language now spoken by only about 1,000 people. Even with seed money from the Taiwanese government, he spent five years raising funds. John Woo came on as a producer, but Wei said that in the end he borrowed most of the money.
Under the Japanese news of the Wushe Incident was suppressed, and to this day the facts remain spotty. Wei, who also wrote the script, conducted research and even met a couple of Seediq tribe members who had been alive during that time. “Of course they were only small children then,” he said. “Even though so much time has passed, they’re still afraid to talk about it.” The Japanese produced detailed accounts of the uprising. In October 1930, some 300 aboriginal warriors from six villages attacked the Japanese during a sporting event, killing about 130 of them. In retaliation, the Japanese sent in more than 2,000 troops, then planes to drop bombs and tear gas. Two months later the rebellion was quelled, with more than 600 Seediq, including women and children, killed or having committed suicide.
“But of course the Japanese told it from their point of view,” Wei said. So, for the script, Wei said he had to find his own truths, such as in one scene where a group of tribal women take their own lives.
“For example, the suicide of the women — the Japanese say the Seediq men forced them to do so,” Wei said, “whereas I show it as a willing act, an act of honor to escape capture by the enemy.”
During pre-production, Wei met Lin at his home village of Nanao. Lin is not a member of the Seediq tribal group but a different one, the Ataya.
“He looked just right. Everything about him was right for the part,” the director said. “I asked him to play Mouna.” Lin, who had never thought about being in the movies, hesitated. “Then so many of my friends and colleagues who’d heard about the project said to me, ‘You should get involved. You should play this role,’ ” he recalled.
Lin said he related to Mouna’s struggle because it paralleled his own. He grew up speaking the Ataya language at home and still does. When he attended primary school, he was forced to learn and speak Mandarin Chinese, which he resented. (At the end of World War II, Japan surrendered Taiwan to Chinese forces.)
The ethnic Chinese students and teachers “looked down on us,” Lin recalled. “They would insult us, pick fights with us. Yes, I got into some fights.” Admittedly, he wasn’t much of a student, and took up some bad habits, like smoking and drinking — a lot of drinking.
Finally, when he was 26, his sister talked him into attending seminary. “She said to me, ‘You’re not doing anything else in your life,’ ” he said. Their parents had been ministers, so it wasn’t a totally out-of-the-blue suggestion. It took 10 years to get through seminary, but little by little, Lin said, “I began to examine my life, how to change myself and my thinking. I learned how to serve others.”
By all accounts, the “Warriors” shoot was a grueling one. For Lin, the most difficult part was learning the Seediq dialogue. Although Seediq culture is close to his own the language is not, so he had to memorize all his lines. “I was learning as we were shooting,” he said. (“Seediq Bale” means ‘real Seediq,’ that is, a real man; for the tribesmen, this meant hunting, cutting the heads off enemies and otherwise proving one’s macho.)
Six months of scheduled shooting stretched into 10 because of the complexities of the action sequences and filming in mountains and rain forests. But on set, Lin proved a natural leader and became spokesman for the other aboriginal actors who had been recruited. “After all, I was a minister, and I was Mouna Rudo,” he said with a smile.
The cast put up with late paychecks and stunt injuries because there was something larger at stake. “We became like a family,” Lin said. “We began to share the feeling that the movie wasn’t the director’s film. It’s became our film, our story.”
-- Scarlet Cheng