Taipei Times: Given your parents’ experience of being blacklisted by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) during the White Terror era, did they ever worry about your safety after you embarked on this project?
Will Tiao (刁毓能): Ever since I left Washington, my career in politics, to pursue a career in Hollywood, I told them I wanted to do something about this issue, with regards to this idea of there being a series of murders of Taiwanese intellectuals, some of them in the US … that there were student spies on almost every campus. I had always wanted to tell the story for an American audience. I knew it was part of my parents’ story. I made it clear from day one that this was something I wanted to do. My father especially said that if you’re going to do something for Taiwan, then I’ll support you.
Of course we knew that doing this movie was something that would be provoking and controversial. But we were always careful about not pointing fingers. Other than Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), no other historical figure is mentioned. Never in the film did we use the terms Kuomintang or waishengren (外省人); we don’t call out any specific person … Of course we were aware that this could cause — and obviously caused — a lot of consternation among certain people, but we were always careful not to keep this in the typical blue-green divide that deals with Taiwan.
PHOTO: HU SHUN-HSIANG, TAIPEI TIMES
TT: How did that consternation you refer to express itself?
Tiao: If you look at the Internet, there’s attacks all over the place. People are arguing and debating and that’s part of why we did this, to make people focus on this. One time at Harvard when I was giving a speech there, a woman came in and asked: ‘What events are you talking about, is this real or is this fake, because this isn’t the history that I was taught.’ And I said, every character in this film is inspired on at least two actual, and every major event in this movie is a composite of an actual event … People get to see how impassioned the debate is. I’m happy to see that people are engaged.
TT: The movie The Killing Fields [about genocide in Cambodia] came out just a few years after the actual events. Have you encountered criticism that your movie, on the other hand, is about ‘ancient’ history, as it depicts events that took place 30 or 40 years ago?
Tiao: Absolutely. But we still see ramifications of that period today. The idea that the 1970s and 1980s is ancient history strikes me as very odd. Most people who were involved in those events are still alive today — at least those who survived. And some of those people are now in power. To not be reminded of what it was like, and what decisions were made at that time on all sides, is not only ill-considered, it’s blasphemous. There’s a reason why so many movies have been made about the Holocaust. We’re the first Hollywood movie about this subject [in Taiwan].
This is a reminder of history that is still fresh on the page and is something that needs to be understood, so that Generation Y know what their parents had to go through to get where they are today, and not forget.
Taiwan is a very unique place, it’s a place where democracy can easily slide backwards because of the specter of China. A lot of people focus on Taiwan’s economic miracle, but few focus on the democratic miracle, and to me that’s something that needed to be told.
TT: There seems to be very little involvement in politics by the Y generation, or the Strawberry Generation, in Taiwan. How do you explain that?
Tiao: It’s a very Taiwanese thing not to talk about the past. There are certain things that should not be mentioned — it’s cultural. It’s not the same thing as American culture, where they just forget [laughter]. There was a time, not a long time ago, when it was illegal and dangerous to talk about those things, and that has carried over.
TT: What are your views on President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) China policy?
Tiao: In many ways it goes to the heart of what the movie defines. For many years, the predominant paradigm that most people analyzed China-Taiwan relations by was Communist versus Nationalist. In our movie, we try to shift that paradigm so that people understand that the main conflict … is an identity issue, one of Chinese versus Taiwanese. There’s a lot of argument about what is Taiwanese identity … The Taiwanese consciousness was really created for the first time on 228 [the Feb. 27, 1947 massacre]. Strong identities are often created through oppression.
For the Chinese, their idea of a national identity stems from the sense of oppression, often from the West. And the concept that China was once great and that the West took it away. Now it’s China’s rightful place to be back where it is and that includes Tibet and Taiwan and anyone who wants to take away Taiwan from the motherland, that’s still part of the Western oppression. Because China is now communist in name only, it’s replaced its ideology with nationalism.
On the flip side, Taiwan’s identity is fairly new, only born of 228 and the White Terror era. It’s not been long enough that Taiwanese feel a strong sense of identity. So Taiwan finds itself in a strange situation, and if you don’t start deciding your own future right now, someone’s going to decide for you.
The largest trade area outside the EU is NAFTA. The largest trading relationship in the world is between the US and Canada. You can have free trade, but the US doesn’t have 1,000 missiles pointed at Canada, saying, ‘Now with NAFTA, you might as well be the 51st state.’
Even though many people say Canada has a similar culture, the same language — you hear all the same arguments about Taiwan and China. But there’s an obvious difference: The US and Canada are both democracies, they both recognize each other. China does not see Taiwan as an equal.
TT: What about the Ma administration’s ability to protect Taiwan?
Tiao: I pray that Taiwanese will wake up and make sure that this democracy they fought so hard for doesn’t disappear. The future isn’t necessarily bright if you turn into Hong Kong, if you are co-opted.
That said, I think whether you’re pan-blue or pan-green, Taiwanese are proud of the democracy and freedom here. But freedom is not free and has a cost and that cost is that you have to be involved. That’s why we want young people especially to watch the movie.
TT: Has anyone from the pan-blue camp been invited to screen your movie in Taiwan?
Tiao: Today we sent an invitation to President Ma and are actively trying to invite pan-blue supporters. A lot of people don’t realize I have KMT investors. I have Chinese investors. For all those people who argue this is a pan-green movie, they have no idea. And to those investors, I made it very clear what this movie was from day one. So the idea that because you’re KMT or waishengren you can’t see this movie isn’t true. This is about Taiwan. Whether you’re green or blue, you need to face up to this stuff.
TT: Do you fear that Formosa Betrayed might have hurt your career in terms of the Chinese market?
Tiao: [laughs] Well, let me just say, I’m an American actor. If there’s one market that Hollywood has yet to crack, it’s China. That’s because nobody buys any movies in China, they all bootleg them. It’s not like there’s any Chinese money coming in.
TT: What about the possibility of Chinese buying US film studios, like the Japanese did in the 1990s?
Tiao: Possibly, but it’s going to be an interesting major clash of cultures. At least Japan by that point was democratic.
TT: If it did, couldn’t it dictate content, or kill projects altogether?
Tiao: If you try to tell a Hollywood filmmaker not to do something, he’ll do it. It would be so anti-Hollywood to shy away. For someone to tell them what to do? No. People watch Hollywood movies because of their rebellious spirit.
The movie will open in theaters in Taiwan on Friday.
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