What you need to know
‘Formosa Betrayed’ tries to build a political thriller around a mystery in an unknown land ruled with an iron fist. It’s empty didacticism — and less than thrilling.
Taiwan is back in the news, thanks to U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit and China’s live fire drills in response, most recently. But especially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, our situation has become a cause for concern everywhere else.
You, dear reader, might be tempted to learn about Taiwan’s predicament from the movies, especially one that’s freely available on YouTube. But though it takes its name (and only that) from the classic postwar memoir by U.S. diplomat George H. Kerr, director-producer Adam Kane’s fictional Formosa Betrayed (2009) does a poor job of covering the bases, despite story co-credit (with Katie Swain) going to Taiwanese American producer Will Tiao.
In 1983, FBI agent Jake Kelly (James Van Der Beek) investigates the murder of Taiwanese American economics professor Henry Wen (Joseph Anthony Foronda). Turns out Henry was assassinated for being a political dissident in exile, and Jake follows the killers to Taiwan, about which he knows nothing.
Apparently the filmmakers know nothing about Taiwan either. All around Jake, jeeps patrol the streets, and military police drag elderly people out of restaurants with no one batting an eye. Is this 1983, when the government was on the brink of democratic reform, or 1947, the year of the 228 Massacre by the government?
In terms of filmmaking, the line deliveries are shouty and awkward, the characters are crudely drawn, and the title is left unexplained, baffling Roger Ebert. (Portuguese sailors passing by in 1544 called Taiwan “Ilha Formosa,” or the beautiful island.) To convey the feel of the 80s, the film was mostly shot in Thailand, which Western people have often confused with Taiwan. Talk about irony. (To get a sense of what Taiwan was really like in the 80s, check out the films of Edward Yang, some of which are also on YouTube.)
According to Dr. Huang (Nirut Sirichanya), the film’s dissident expert, the government of Taiwan is brutally suppressing its people, who are protesting an earlier massacre and are now demanding independence. The horrors of that suppression are viscerally conveyed through the character of Ming (Tiao), a dissident operative whose wife (Pathomporn Tempark) and young daughter (Napatcha Suthimaithee) Jake meets, before they’re bloodily murdered. And in the only grace note of the film, the considerate, learned, and open-minded general in charge of the suppression (Kenneth Tsang) seems to sympathize with the protestors — but he still has to follow orders.
Written by two sets of screenwriters (Charlie Stratton & Yann Samuell and Brian Askew & Nathaniel Goodman), the film tries to build a political thriller around a mystery in an unknown land ruled with an iron fist, whose government can send assassins halfway around the world with impunity due to U.S. regime support, in an echo of the real-world case of Henry Liu, a journalist who was assassinated by gangsters in league with the Taiwanese dictatorship in an incident known locally as the “Chiang Nan Affair.” But the film’s structural reliance on flashforwards undercuts the beating heart of any thriller: the unspooling of events. As a result, the denouement is confusing.
Formosa Betrayed looks and feels like a thriller, but it’s not very popcorn-y. That would’ve been fine if it had succeeded as a message film. Alas, the film’s need to fit the thriller mold distorts the very history that it’s trying to teach. It’s empty didacticism — the worst kind.
So much subtext is elided, and so here’s where I admit that I think the only value of this film is as an excuse for people who know more about Taiwan (like me) to talk about what actually happened.
The complex and layered history of Taiwan can be summed up in a single question: When you say “Taiwanese,” who are you talking about?
Is it the descendants of the governing population of the Republic of China, which began retreating to Taiwan from the Communists after World War II and imposed martial law until 1987, taking over all the positions of power, wealth, and influence?
Is it the descendants of the population the first group came to rule over, which endured 50 years of Japanese colonization till the end of WW2, only to suffer under the backward and rapacious administration of the ROC, and when it protested was brutally massacred beginning on February 28, 1947, and lasting for months?
Is it the descendants of the Chinese settlers during the Qing dynasty, mostly men, who one day found themselves ruled over by a distrustful and exploitative Japanese colonial administration after the First Sino-Japanese War and the unequal Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895?
Is it the descendants of the Chinese pioneers led by the pirate Koxinga 鄭成功, Ming dynasty remnants who formed a government-in-exile that prompted the Qing government to invade and formally govern the island?
Is it the descendants of Spanish and Dutch missionaries, who established some measure of control in the north and south of the island, respectively, until they were driven out by Koxinga?
Or do you mean the Indigenous peoples of the island, who in prehistoric times spread throughout Austronesia, who have been attacked and assimilated by every one of the above groups, and whose linguistic heritage was only recently granted legal recognition with the passage of the Indigenous Languages Development Act in 2017?
With the exception of the Indigenous peoples, whose perspectives (video) are tragically underrepresented, the younger generation living in Taiwan today mostly define themselves collectively as against unification with China. This consensus is partly founded on having forced the government into democratization and liberalization (marriage equality was legalized by the Constitutional Court, not the government). A formal declaration of independence, the Communists warn, would trigger an invasion to “reunify” Taiwan, a threat backed up by its roughly 600 missile launchers (not just missiles) pointed at Taiwan as of November 2020.
Given this history, it’s unclear what kind of independence the protestors in Formosa Betrayed are agitating for. Do they want the Republic of China to change its name to Taiwan and relinquish all claims on Mainland territory (a very special definition of “independence,” indeed, that the Communists also seem to be using)? Or do they want to overthrow the Republic itself?
The vexed situation is why the official policy of multiple governments around the world is to take no stance on Taiwan: Sometimes it’s best not to say exactly what you mean. At least the film got one thing right.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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