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Sunday, August 08, 2010

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Formosa Betrayed, a powerful story

This can't possibly be the same film Ian Bartholemew reviewed Friday

The film Formosa Betrayed, whose screenplay amalgamates the tales of the 1980s murders of Carnegie Mellon University professor Chen Wen-chen (陳文成) and writer Henry Liu (劉宜良, AKA Chiang Nan [江南]), has been discussed publicly for almost four years, and it finally made it to general release at cinemas in Taiwan on Friday, August 6, 2010.

Yet Taipei Times movie critic Ian Bartholemew seems to think it was based upon the George Kerr book of the same name (it was not), that it was about the events surrounding the 228 Massacre (二二八大屠殺) of 1947 (even though that event -- which happened 36 years prior to our story -- is mentioned within, it's not part of the plot of this movie), and that "Retrocession" [sic] is the proper term for the occupation of Taiwan by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) (it is not).

Formosa Betrayed movie poster outside of Taichung's Tiger City
Formosa Betrayed movie poster
outside of Taichung's Tiger City
Photo by Tim Maddog
(Click to enlarge)

I had awaited this film's arrival in Taiwan for such a long time, and having seen so many previews, reviews, and interviews, I was a little bit worried that there wouldn't be very much left for me to experience anew when I saw it in a movie theater. Fortunately, I was wrong.

Before I get to anything involving spoilers, let me tell you a few things about the movie in general.

It is what it is
So, what is Formosa Betrayed? The story centers around FBI Agent Jake Kelly (played by James van der Beek) and his search for the two gangsters who murder Taiwanese-American professor Henry Wen. The evidence brings Jake to Taiwan, where he meets waiter/independence activist Ming (明, played by Will Tiao [刁毓能], who also co-wrote and produced the movie) and uncovers more truth than his superiors ever wanted him to. The events take place in 1983, during the White Terror period and four years before the lifting of the Chinese KMT's 38-year-long imposition of martial law on Taiwan.

This is thriller
Beyond the film's historical implications (being the first American film to deal with Taiwan-US relations"), we are propelled through the story by our concern for the protagonists, Jake and Ming, by their struggles against bureaucracies, gangsters, police agencies, and even military officials, and by the hope that they will succeed and survive. It shouldn't matter if you are American, Taiwanese, or neither -- unless you hate one or both of those countries, you'll probably care for both characters, and you will feel their pain as you watch horrific events unfold.

The antagonists are everywhere. Watch the movie and see how almost every time Jake tries to do the right thing, someone delays him, finds his "target" before he does, or tries to bring him great harm. You might not even realize whether some characters are the good guys or the bad guys until near the end of the flick.

Production values
The film -- directed by Adam Kane (Heroes) and photographed by Irek Hartowicz -- has a gritty, desaturated look throughout much of it, creating an atmosphere appropriate to both the period and the content. The first image we see -- Jake's blood-splattered face in very shallow depth of field -- sets the tone for what's to follow.

The score didn't draw much attention to itself, remaining mostly way in the background except in some especially tense scenes. Two or three times during the film, I got quite a jolt from the audio-visual-story combo -- an excellent reason to see the film in a theater.

Other reviewers' complaints about the film being shot in Thailand instead of Taiwan drive me nuts. The reasons for it happening have been explained again and again, and even more detail has come out quite recently about the Chinese KMT's involvement. My wife -- Have I mentioned that she's Taiwanese? -- didn't have any complaints about the locations not looking enough like Taiwan in the eighties, so I have a hard time accepting that particular gripe.

Some of these complainers may merely wish to discredit Formosa Betrayed. Others may have unthinkingly been influenced by such thoughts and are repeating them. Whatever their reasons, it's as if everyone suddenly forgot how to suspend their disbelief for this particular motion picture. (Pssssst! You're actually sitting in a chair in an air-conditioned theater in the year 2010 in a city which may or may not be Taipei!) With the budget limitations, I would guess that telling the story took priority over adding a CGI recreation of Taipei.

So, while it may not be a state-of-the-art spectacle, it does a great job of doing what people go to the movies for: it tells a powerful story.

It ain't what it's not
Formosa Betrayed is not an allegory. It's basically a straight-up dramatization of events related to Taiwan's history -- a story which has needed to be told for a very long time. And Will Tiao, Adam Kane, and the rest of the cast and crew have done a formidable job of it.

What will I learn?
* The Chinese KMT is not protecting Taiwan from Commie bandits, and they never have.
* The United States' cooperation with the Chinese KMT ignores/involves lots and lots of evil.
* Good people standing up for basic human rights get called "gangsters" and "terrorists" by those responsible for mass murder of innocent civilians.
* Taiwan is not China, and despite frequent claims about the matter, Taiwanese are not treated like "brothers" by the Chinese.
* Others' admonitions which are supposedly "for your own good" are often ways for them to hold onto power while keeping you down.

Who should see this film?
Every single Taiwanese should see this film, whether they already know about this history or not. Anyone who has ever supported the Chinese KMT should see this film and open their eyes widely. Americans should see this film to understand what their government has done (and continues to do) to Taiwan.

If you enjoy thrillers, you should see Formosa Betrayed because it's an exciting story which, as Roger Ebert says, is "actually about something."

If you don't like mainstream Hollywood flicks, see it for its independent style.

If you don't fall into any of those categories, make like a Nike ad, and just see it!

Where to see it
I saw it at Tiger City in Taichung. Here's the page where you can find showtimes for all Vieshow Cinemas (威秀影城) in Taiwan. See it soon, as it probably won't be here for long.

Fiction vs. reality (SPOILERS)
Some people have said that the people and events portrayed in Formosa Betrayed are entirely imaginary. Those people are either lying or they're ignorant -- perhaps both. Here is a short list of some people/things in the film and the people/things they correspond to (or not) in real life:

* Wen Ming-hua (溫明華, AKA Henry Wen, the murder victim) = Chen Wen-chen + Henry Liu.
* Guy with camera at student protest = Student spies funded by the Chinese KMT.
* David Wu Da-wei + James Lee Shin-shen (the killers) = Chen Chi-li (陳啟禮) and others.
* Ming's sister, Maysing (美星): "Don't use your phone. They're listening." = Government phone tapping of political opponents/dissidents/competitors -- something which still happens quite frequently.
* The protest in Kaohsiung = The Kaohsiung Incident of 1979. (Note: Just a few months after Formosa Betrayed had completed filming, similar things happened during the protests against visiting Chinese envoy, Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin [陳雲林]. including the brutal beating of an FTV [民視] reporter. Also watch Red Caution to see what happened to Taiwan in the first few months Ma Ying-jeou [馬英九] was in office as president.)
* The murder of Ming's wife and daughter in their home = The murder of Lin I-hsiung's (Lîm Gī-hiông, 林義雄) family while their home was under 24-hour police surveillance.
* The way Ming's father was killed = The way many people were killed in the 228 Massacre: shot in the head and/or dumped in a river. (Others were buried alive.)
* Professor Wen and Ming being called "gangsters" and "terrorists" = A common tactic used by the gangster-affiliated Chinese KMT.
* 健康 (Health[y] brand cigarettes = The ironically-named Long Life (長壽) brand of cigarettes.
* The movie ≠ The book by George Kerr. Although it's got the same title, and it's about the same country and the same party-state, it's a different story.

Other interesting tidbits (minor SPOILERS)
* Jake is assigned Room 228 (a reference to the 228 Massacre of 1947) in his Taipei hotel.
* When Jake is at the airport leaving Taiwan, a voice is heard on the airport intercom announcing in English "China Airline[s] flight 1947 from Taipei to New York is now boarding…"

Just one thing…
As Michael Turton pointed out previously, that onscreen title at the end… it's wrong, and it should be fixed because it undermines the message the rest of the film tries so hard to get across. It says [highlight mine]:
Currently there are 23 countries that recognize Taiwan as an independent nation.

The United States is not one of them.
The problem is that the countries which have official relations with "Taiwan" recognize Taiwan as the "Republic of China" and its associated claim to represent -- y'know -- China. Because of the "one-China" policies of both the PRC and the ROC, not a single one of those countries recognize Taiwan's independence the way they should -- and that right there is the problem!

A whole spectrum of other reviews
* David Reid's review: "Formosa Betrayed: a quest for truth and justice."
* Jerome F. Keaton's review: "The Film 'Formosa Betrayed' Though Different from 'Cape No. 7' is Important for Taiwan Youth."
* Michael Turton's review: "The Gospel According to Will: Formosa Betrayed."
* Sheri Linden wrote a fair-even-if-not-entirely-postive review in The Hollywood Reporter.
* Despite the number of stars he gave it, Roger Ebert seems to have liked it.
* Ian Bartholemew wrote what could be the most uninformed movie review I've ever read.
* Does Vancouver's Katherine Monk think that watching Formosa Betrayed is as bad as being colonized and placed under nearly four decades of martial law? Her excessively negative review is titled: "Viewers are ones who are betrayed."

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Cross-posted at It's Not Democracy, It's A Conspiracy!

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5 Comments:

At 4:58 PM, Blogger Joshua said...

Thanks for the post/review - I had heard about this film, but haven't seen it and didn't know what angle it would take.

As someone who is new to Taiwan (it's been about 2 weeks!) - what are some good English-language outlets for Taiwan politics - other than this blog of course?

 
At 9:22 PM, Blogger Tim Maddog said...

Joshua, for English news, I recommend the Taipei Times and Taiwan News, either via convenience stores or online. Avoid the other English paper (The China Pest) except to see the bellicose, anti-Taiwan perspective its name would suggest.

Also check out the blogs in the sidebar, especially: David on Formosa; The Far-Eastern Sweet Potato; Jerome F. Keating's Writings; Letters from Taiwan; and The View from Taiwan.

I hope that helps.

Tim Maddog

 
At 5:44 PM, Blogger White Oleander said...

I saw the movie and was not satisfied with the choice of actors. I would much prefer if they actually made a real documentary in English about 228 event. More people need to know about it 'cause I'm tired of ignorant who can't differentiate between Taiwan and China.

I was just reading a magazine on British Airways this week, where an article about Taiwan tourism was presented. I was shocked that the writer had the audacity to describe Taiwan and I quote "as Republic of China or 23rd province of China, depending on one's point of view".

What else can Taiwanese people do to educate ignorant like him?

 
At 9:30 PM, Blogger Tim Maddog said...

White Oleander, we can't assume the writer of the Taiwan tourism article was "ignorant." Perhaps s/he wrote what was most profitable, despite the distortions involved.

Writing to the author, her/his publisher(s), or others may be a waste of time. Believe me -- I've tried, and they have more excuses than you can imagine, ignorance not being one of them.

There's a better chance of getting readers to understand (whether it's by writing a blog, using social media, and spreading the message in your everyday conversations) than of getting these kinds of writers to change. So until the readers are educated enough to laugh that kind of propaganda out of the pages of such publications worldwide, it will continue.

While a documentary on the 228 Massacre would certainly be good (if it's done accurately -- and how can it be while the Chinese Nationalist Party [KMT] is still in possession of most of the related historical records) I agree with those who say that Formosa Betrayed will get people interested in the subject and talking about it.

Until that interest and discussion develops, I think a thriller like Formosa Betrayed has a better chance of attracting viewers than a documentary would.

Given the success Formosa Betrayed seems to have had so far, I think it's a giant step forward.

Tim Maddog

 
At 9:08 AM, Blogger Roy Berman said...

One clarification: While it would be a stretch to say that it is based on the Kerr book, since the primary events of the film are based on events that took place much later, the title IS! I'm afraid I don't have time to find the link now, but I very distinctly remember an interview with Will Tiao in which he describes how they used simply "Formosa" as a working title for a while, and when eventually somebody suggested naming it "Formosa Betrays" he and they were clearly thinking about the book.

He also describes how he would deliver copies of the Kerr book to Congressional offices while he was working in Washington. As I'm sure you know, FAPA made a point of announcing how they delivered a DVD of the film to every Congressional office, and had a special screening/Q&A for those willing to attend. Tiao's film is very much based on the book, in a spiritual sense, and it shares the title because a) where the book was the first significant English language portrayal of 228, the film is the first popular cultural media to describe those same events - albeit updated with many later ones.

Glad to see you also pointed out the infuriating end credits. Many of the historical liberties taken during the film proper are tolerable due to the fact that it is an explicit dramatization and not a documentary or even direct reenactment of actual events, but Tiao obviously knows the real deal, and therefore one must conclude that the misinformation in the title cards is actually a deliberate lie rather than a mistake.

BTW, 2.5 stars for Ebert is also not a bad review. Certainly not a rave, but good enough for him to recommend it for a particular subset of viewers.

 

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