By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Formosa Betrayed” begins with a huge flurry of action. The film is set in 1983 at Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-shek International Airport, and soldiers surround a trio of running men. Shots go off and one Chinese man falls to the ground. Armed officers pull a second Chinese man, Ming (played by Will Tiao), out of sight. The third man, American FBI agent Jake Kelly (played by James Van Der Beek), ends up in an office with Susan Kane (Wendy Crewson), the American Liaison to Taiwan. Before the soldiers rush in, he must explain his actions to her.
Unfortunately, the film, which attempts to explain Taiwan’s history using composite characters and events, obscures a far more compelling true story. Jake Kelly never existed, and the story he tells, revealed in oddly layered flashbacks, never happened either. This unwillingness to tell the true story, even though the film bills itself as “inspired by actual events,” ends up hurting “Formosa Betrayed.” An audience can’t be expected to care about fictional characters if the compelling true story’s been negated.
In the film, we see the murder of Professor Henry Wen (Joseph Anthony Foronda) in Chicago. Wen, a Taiwanese native, was getting ready to publish an important book on his country’s inner workings. His murder looks like a result of a Chinese gang execution.
The FBI works on finding the killer from its Chicago office. “I just wanna catch bad guys,” remarks one agent. “I’m with you,” replies another. The dialogue does not improve from there.
Jake Kelly traces the killers to Taipei, Taiwan’s largest city. There, he finds government agents willing to drink him under the table as they say nothing about finding the killers. The film’s crew shot the film in Thailand to minimize costs and cast Thai actors in smaller roles. Production designer Anthony R. Stabley did a fine job in creating the setting of early-80s Taiwan, complete with American cars from earlier decades roaming the streets.
The bad news is that little else in “Formosa Betrayed” rises above mediocrity. As Agent Kelly, Van Der Beek, former star of television series “Dawson’s Creek,” looks angry, sad, confused, and hurt without ever giving off a sense of passion. Will Tiao, who also co-produced and co-wrote the film, comes on more striking. But oddly enough, his character Ming only appears in the later portion of the film and isn’t given enough screen time to tip the balance.
In real life, Professor Henry Wen is an amalgamation of two men, Professor Wen-Chen Chen of Carnegie Mellon University and California journalist Henry Liu. Chen died under mysterious circumstances in 1981 while visiting family in Taiwan. Liu was shot to death in Daly City, Calif., in 1984.
Both men knew details of Taiwanese history that the Taiwanese government probably did not want Westerners to know. One of Henry Liu’s killers, Kui-sen Tung, told an American court that the decision to kill Liu came from officials in Taipei. Liu’s widow attempted to sue the Republic of China, as Taiwan is formally known. That suit was settled out of court.
These are two fascinating stories. And the death of Henry Liu has a book all to itself. But the filmmakers, for whatever reason, chose to tell neither. Between the reliance on fiction and the lukewarm rendering of the fictitious story, this is one story that you’re better off reading up on.
“Formosa Betrayed” opens on April 5th in Seattle. Check local listings for theaters, prices, and show times. ♦
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.