Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Gospel According to Will: Formosa Betrayed

Last week the publicity team for Formosa Betrayed contacted me and asked if I wanted to attend a screening of the new film, due out in Taiwan August 6, and write a review of it. I jumped at the opportunity. Here is the result (Ahoy! Spoilers ahead!):


Formosa Betrayed (IMDB)(Official Website)
Produced and written by Will Tiao and Katie Swain
Directed by Adam Kane
Starring James Van Der Beek, Tzi Ma, Will Tiao, John Heard, and Wendy Crewson
103 mins.
DVD: Screen Media, Amazon, or iTunes.

In the great new film Formosa Betrayed producer and writer Will Tiao, a second-generation Taiwanese-American, offers us an unsettling yet emotionally gripping account of an American FBI agent (James van der Beek) accidentally thrust into a 1980s Taiwan in the grip of a police state nightmare, in hot pursuit of gangster hit men who, as he finally comes to understand, are actually agents of the Taiwan government eliminating a pro-democracy critic abroad.

Formosa Betrayed opens with its bloody, shocking ending: a killing in the airport as Kelly, more or less expelled from Taiwan, is leaving the country. The story is told in a series of flashbacks, returning to the ending, then bouncing back to some point in the past to further elaborate. Like Agent Jake Kelly, the viewer has to immerse herself in the tale for a while before she finds a foothold in it. And like Agent Kelly, the viewer will find that much has been learned before the exit is reached.

Back in 1983 when the idea that Taiwan was Free China still lingered like sewer stink on a Taipei street, Agent Kelly finds himself going to Taiwan due to a murder at a university in the US. A Taiwanese economic professor there is killed in an unsubtle professional hit by gangsters. First working under the assumption that the killing is a gangland affair, Kelly gradually realizes that something doesn't add up. Professor Wen, a respected academic, is sending money back to Taiwan -- to the Presbyterian Church. Where are the gangland associates?

Sent to Taiwan to "assist" in the investigation though knowing nothing about the island, Kelly is met by Susan Kane (Wendy Crewson), who describes the ROC in glowing 1950s stereotypes of pro- and anti-Communism. Kane is an obvious authoritarian shill, and while van der Beek does great work, it is Crewson's uncompromising ability to filter out the slightest rationality or sympathy from her character that in my opinion is the best acting job in this movie; she is the foil who enables van der Beek to credibly -- and understatedly -- portray the FBI agent with a conscience. The final shot of her in the movie is brilliant.

Though Formosa Betrayed is conventionally described as a thriller that also introduces some of the issues of Taiwan democracy and independence, and may certainly be enjoyed and understood that way, it is much more than that. What Tiao has done in this film is offered a homage to the Other History of Taiwan. Like Jesus of the Gospels, Agent Kelly moves through allegorical world made sacred, not by redemptive action, but by the lives and deaths of Taiwan activists whose Taiwan abides still, unredeemed. This landscape is then further re-imagined for accessibility to an American audience.

In the shooting of Professor Henry Wen, Tiao makes a double reference to the killer of writer Henry Liu in the US in 1984 by Taiwan gangsters, and to the killing of Professor Chen Wen-chen in 1980 under interrogation in Taipei. Those of us with a passionate interest in Taiwan will also see a reference to the murder of Lin Yi-hsiung's family. The film depicts a completely gratuitous trip to Kaohsiung, where Kelly falls in with a peaceful democracy protest that is brutally assaulted by ROC troops, a clear reference to the Kaohsiung Incident of 1979. Even the title, which refers to George Kerr's famous book of the same name, draws the reader into the beginnings of that world, for the ROC regime on Taiwan would not have been possible without US backing and US material and military support at its inception. This enrichment of the story with these watershed events -- right down to the number of Agent Kelly's room in Taipei -- that gives it a special emotional power for viewers familiar with this history.

Aside from Susan Kane, Kelly moves through the mystery of 1980s Taiwan entirely without a foreign guide. Instead, he meets a series of Taiwanese who draw him ever more deeply into the authoritarian reality that lies behind the facade of ROC sophistication and Free China "democracy". The beauty of this approach is that it leaves Kelly, like the movie-goer, alone to fish for his own truths in this sea of Taiwanese. Tiao and Swain thus permit the Taiwanese to tell their story of Taiwan to Kelly in their own way, passionate, moving, and informative. A wonderful shot in the Kaohsiung protest scene visually emphasizes Kelly's singular and uncertain position in the world he has entered.

Knowledgeable viewers will probably have many issues with the movie. Tiao's portrait of 1980s Taiwan is overwrought. Police and military did not crowd the streets with automatic rifles and checkpoints on every corner. The period of political killings was largely over, though suspicious deaths would occur into the 1980s. Torture was not often as blatant as it is shown in the movies; ROC torturers generally preferred methods that did not leave marks, such as waterboarding. But American audiences, who largely do not understand how police states function, such over-the-top portraiture is probably necessary. The closeted independence supporters Kelly meets in high positions in the KMT police state will also not be credible to knowledgeable viewers, though they are probably necessary to tell the story, and the pro-ROC types are recognizable caricatures, no doubt another necessity. Yet it should also be recalled, when the ROC officials smear Professor Wen (ridiculously) as a Moriarity-style gangster mastermind, that such claims were SOP. Recall too that future KMT heavyweight James Soong was in charge of the propaganda drive during the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident, claiming that 180 police but no protesters were injured (similar claims were made again, three decades later, about the Chen Yunlin protests). If what happens in the movie sounds stilted to certain US critics, it is probably because they lack experience with just how absurdly transparent ROC propaganda can be.

Historical issues abound. Formosa Betrayed was filmed in Thailand to stand in for Taiwan, and has the wrong feel, even for the time period. There is a shot of a metro in the film, years too early, that adds nothing to the story and should probably be removed, and a reference to the missiles aimed at Taiwan years before they showed up in large numbers. Perhaps these are part of the way the film telescopes past and present, but I found them jarring, nonetheless.

Most importantly, the final frame of the film leaves the viewer with the profoundly erroneous claim that 23 nations recognize "Taiwan". These nations actually recognize the ROC: no nation on earth recognizes Taiwan as a country. That really is the whole point of Formosa Betrayed: after all these sacrifices, we're still not there yet. That line needs to be changed ASAP, since it manages to be factually incorrect while at the same time threatening to undermine everything Tiao is trying to say. Simply end with something like: Today no nation on earth recognizes Taiwan as an independent state.

Filmed on a modest $8 million budget, about an issue little known in the US, lacking a big-name actor, Formosa Betrayed will probably not win any Oscars. But it represents a series of important and enjoyable firsts for a movie about Taiwan: a movie about Taiwan politics, told from a Taiwan-centered point of view, for an audience that needs to hear that as often and as loudly as possible. Hopefully, it will be the first of many such films.

And hey, if the politics get in the way, you can still sit down with that gargantuan tub of popcorn and an oversize coke that could water a small farm, kick back in front of the big screen, and spend a couple of hours savoring a solid thriller with some great moments of humor and pathos, enough blood to give it an "R" rating, and -- like Taiwan itself -- a shrouded, unsettled finish.
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Sage said...

Thank you Michael, excellent review. I'm excited to see the film, did you mention when it would be in theaters here?

I've heard from a couple of friends in the states that said the movie seemed to be very well received and thought provoking in SFO.

I hope now the gates will open and other film makers will give it a shot as well.

Sage said...

August ... answered my own question.

Michael Turton said...

I hope so too. I looked at many reviews around the web. No total rejections, anyway. Tiao has done a real service and needs our support.

Yes, it opens here in August.

Anonymous said...

Much of the initial development money was provided by the Taiwanese American community as Taiwan supporters let their checkbooks do the talking and they should be proud to have helped bring this movie to the screen.

Each person had the option of buying shares as low as $5000 and higher in $5000 increments to help provide startup money just as you would with any startup. They risked losing it all and also risked not seeing any dividends for years. Filmmaking is a high risk investment.

I hope this will encourage more people to have a little faith in Taiwan and start taking more risks on projects that help draw attention to our home.

Right now Taiwan has both China's and their own government's propaganda machines working full tilt to push their Chinese nationalist propaganda down everyones throats. The head of the GIO is planning a major trip to the US where he will visit very important media outlets to do who knows what, but expect the worst.

Projects like Tiao's movie give Taiwanese a means to push back.

Anonymous said...

I'll have to see it when it comes to south Texas.

Considering the huge investment of time, effort and money that goes into making a movie, I often wonder why they don't make the relatively small effort of running elements of the screenplay by a few more people in order to make the whole package as realistic as possible.

But I suppose you could say the same thing about almost any "based on real events" movie.

They seem very realistic to everyone --except for people who actually know and understand that place, and who lived through those events.


janice said...

Thanks for the great review, Michael. I also found the activist girl with security state contacts to be a bit of a narrative cheat. On the third viewing, however, I wondered if the character of the enigmatic general played by Kenneth Tsang wasn't intended as an allusion to someone like Lee Teng-hui.

sheau jiung said...

I went to see this on movie on last Sunday. After the movie, the film maker host a discussion over the movie. I must say I am terribly disappointed with the movie. Several truth events are so twisted in the movie, one can discredit this movie nothing but propaganda. You are right on no MP on every corner of street in Taipei during 1980. No such airport killing during 1980.
Producer fail to catch the event of "Jiang-Nan" case to challenge the true fact of KMT. KMT contract gangster to kill a American citizen in Daly city just because he prepare a book to reveal Chiang Jing-Guo. The producer fail to reveal the fact that the gangster consider to kill political dissent being a national hero. Till today, Taiwan still has a portion of mainlander think in this way.
Taiwan need a movie like "who kill JFK" to challeneg the legitimate of KMT in political power because it has been brain wash people that KMT is everything. Hopefully pan-green does not follow the step of KMT. No single party can claim they represent the whole island. It is diversified society.