It is probably appropriate to applaud the fact that Formosa Betrayed has been given a Taiwan release, but virtually everything else about the film can only make one shake one’s head. Causes for despair range from accusations of political pressure brought to bear on the production of the film, already given coverage recently in the Taipei Times (see stories on Page 3 of this newspaper’s July 31 and Aug. 2 editions), to the lamentable quality of the adaptation and filmmaking.
It is only fair to say that many, though far from all, of the problems in Formosa Betrayed can be attributed to the fact that it had to be shot in Thailand rather than Taiwan because of budget constraints that purportedly were the result of political pressure brought to bear by several members of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which is unsympathetically represented in the film.
Formosa Betrayed is loosely inspired by the book of the same title published in 1965 by George H. Kerr, a US Foreign Service staff officer in Taipei at the time of the 228 Incident in 1947. The book is a mixture of history and memoir that examines the events around the retrocession of Taiwan to Chinese rule and America’s not altogether honorable role in the process. The betrayal of the title refers not just to the dashing of hopes raised by the prospect of Taiwan being returned from Japanese colonial rule to administration by a Chinese government, but also the support given to a dictatorial regime by Washington, which ignored the democratic aspirations of the Taiwanese people for its own geopolitical interests. This provides background in the same way as Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone provides background for the Paul Greengrass action thriller Green Zone. In other words, it uses the book as little more than a bit of topical color.
Formosa Betrayed tells the story of Special Agent Kelly (James Van Der Beek), a junior officer with the FBI who gets sent to Taiwan to observe an investigation into the murder of Henry Wen, an outspoken critic of the KMT government who was assassinated while in exile in the US. Kelly quickly realizes that attempts to smear Wen as a triad member caught up in a gangland dispute are merely cover for a wide-ranging campaign of political terror by the KMT to silence anti-government elements. He decides to take things into his own hands, bucking the reigns that both his hosts and his superiors in the US try to put on him in order to bring the truth to light. He finds an ally in Ming (Will Tiao), who wants to get Taiwan’s message out to the world, and pays a terrible price.
Unfortunately, director Adam Kane is no Greengrass, and James Van Der Beek is no match for Matt Damon as an action hero, and the result is a plodding attempt at a political thriller that spends too much time on expository dialogue and fails to deliver any thrills. In addition to being shot in Thailand, the film uses no Taiwanese actors in any major role (Will Tiao is Taiwanese American and was born and raised in Kansas). This gives the film an utterly ersatz feel from the get-go, for the setting is manifestly not Taipei (and could not mistaken for it by anyone familiar with Taiwan even given the time lapse of 50 years). The facade is further compromised by the use of Chinese dialogue, as when Hong Kong-born US-based actor Tzi Ma, playing the role of a senior government official, gives a formal welcome speech at an official banquet for the newly arrived American agent in Mandarin so stilted that it would not be out of place in a speech contest for beginner students at National Taiwan Normal University’s Mandarin Training Center. The rest of the Chinese dialogue is of a piece with this. Although setting and sound might be secondary to the importance of getting a political message out to a wider audience, the poor quality of both seriously undermines the credibility of the film.
As for the political message, even that ends up getting hopelessly garbled, and director Kane gets caught up in the lockstep of the Hollywood mainstream thriller format. The complex ethnic and political issues surrounding Retrocession get reduced to a generic conflict of good, ordinary people turning against a corrupt and despotic power, and the lone man of conscience appalled by the self-interest of the government he serves. There is nothing here that stands out, either in the story or in the characters involved. The indifferent acting and flaccid dialogue don’t help.
The sad fact is that to get an idea about what was happening in Taiwan around Retrocession and the 228 Incident, there is still no rival for Hou Hsiao-hsien’s (侯孝賢) A City of Sadness (悲情城市), which was made way back in 1989. The best that can be said of Formosa Betrayed is that it might direct a few people to read the book, which is available online at www.romanization.com/books/formosabetrayed. Save your money and go online.
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