Pras on World Films: FORMOSA BETRAYED

Focusing on an F.B.I. investigation into the murder of Henry Wen (Joseph Forunda), a Taiwanese economics professor in Chicago, the film is partly a tutorial on the tense relations among Taiwan (the island of Formosa), the Chinese mainland and the United States, and partly a clumsy cloak-and-dagger political thriller.

The movie addresses one of the trickiest balancing acts in global politics. The United States does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation, and maintains a “one China” policy. But the Taiwan Relations Act, passed in 1979 after the United States established diplomatic relations with Beijing, pledges to help defend the island if it is attacked by the mainland. Because both Chinas are valuable trading partners with the United States, it is a classic example of diplomacy that plays both ends against the middle.

The story takes place 13 years before Taiwan held its first democratic elections, at which time China conducted missile testing near the island as a warning not to declare independence. The United States responded by sending two aircraft carriers to the area.

PosterIn this movie, directed by Adam Kane, much of this history and its complicating factors — including powerful criminal gangs, arms sales, factions within factions and sub rosa wheeling and dealing — is related by Ming (Will Tiao), a waiter, pro-independence activist and friend of Wen’s mentor (Nirut Sirichanya). Wen was an outspoken supporter of the Taiwanese independence movement, which the established government viewed as a grave threat.

In 1983, after an activist Chinese immigrant is murdered near the University of Chicago, evidence points to involvement by a Taiwanese gang. The film’s central character, Agent Jake Kelly (James Van Der Beek) is a new young F.B.I. agent assigned to travel to Taiwan to observe but not to participate in the murder investigation, which focuses on Wen’s two presumed assassins. As Jake comes to believe that the killers were dispatched by the Taiwanese government to silence Wen, he violates orders and becomes more than an observer. Since Wen was an American citizen, any proof that the Taiwanese government ordered the assassination could endanger relations between the United States and Taiwan. His investigation is marked by polite references to protocol and warnings from a pragmatic superior (Wendy Crewson) that are standard fare in stories about American intervention. But the movie has educational value once Kelly has a secret meeting with Ming (Will Tiao), a waiter turned democracy activist.
We’re told that under Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party inherited the island from the defeated Japanese and purged it of indigenous intellectuals and civil servants.

The naïve Jake, who apparently has not been briefed on the history of the region, lunges headlong into danger, upsetting diplomatic apple carts in the blind pursuit of “the truth.” Mr. Van Der Beek, manlier than in his “Dawson Creek” days, gives an able performance in a movie whose Asian actors tend to overplay the intrigue in an exaggerated 1940s style, exchanging sinister meaningful looks and, in general, hamming it up.

Wendy Crewson’s portrayal of Susan Kane, a duplicitous United States diplomatic attaché keeping a sharp eye on Jake, gives the film’s strongest performance. When he blithely ignores her instructions on how to behave and acts, in her scolding words, “like a cowboy,” you feel how difficult, wearisome and ultimately infuriating it must be to try to manage an ignorant brat, who thinks he knows it all, on a self-righteous rampage.

FORMOSA BETRAYED is thought-provoking and presents multiple perspectives on the Taiwan issue. These perspectives constitute the conflict that lasts throughout the movie (primarily between agent Jake Kelly and the AIT (American Institute in Taiwan) director). It argues that Formosa, now known as Taiwan, has been the pawn of great powers for centuries. Occupied by Japan in the pre-World War II years, it was claimed by the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek after the war, and his army retreated there after its defeat by Red China. Although Americans have long been schooled that Chiang flew the banner of freedom, the film says he seized property, killed thousands of native Formosans, wiped out the leadership class and established a dictatorship. Only 23 countries, not including Canada or the U.S., recognize the “Beautiful Island” as independent. This movie won’t do anything for tourism but might prompt audiences to learn more about what happened to those who tried to expose corruption and cruelty.

Several events in Taiwan that inspired the making of the movie.
1)  The Kaohsiung Incident (1979) – A demonstration led by Formosa Magazine staff resulted in the Martial Law arrest of dozens of dissidents.
2)  The Lin Family Massacre (1980) – A grim murder of the 7 years old twin girls and their 70 years old grandma in their house then under 24-hour surveillance by the Garrison Command (Taiwan secret police). The day before her murder, the grandma had managed to reach out the international human right organizations about the brutal treatment received by her son in jail. Her son Lin Yi-Hsiung was among the Kaohsiung Incident dissidents arrested.
3) The Murder of Chen Wen-Chen (1981) – Carnegie Mellon University professor Chen Wen-Chen, while visiting Taiwan, was interrogated by the Garrison Command agents two days in a roll. He never returned home. Dr. Chen had been an active Taiwan independence advocate.
4. The Assassination of Henry Liu (1984) – California resident and Journalist Henry Liu was killed in his garage by mafia killers sent overseas by the Taiwan Garrison Command (the secret police head was later sentenced to life by Taiwan authority). Liu had just released a book about the reigning president Chiang Jing-Guo, son and successor of Chiang Kai-Shek.

Formosa Betrayed

  • Directed by Adam Kane
  • Written by a vast committee
  • Starring James Van Der Beek and Will Tiao
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