Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Taiwan Stands Alone: Formosa Betrayed

Once known as “Formosa,” the Portuguese word for “island,” Taiwan has always occupied a precarious geo-political position. After all, the tiny democracy’s greatest military ally steadfastly refuses to acknowledge its existence, despite the overtly hostile ambitions of neighboring Communist China. Of course, the Republic of China on Taiwan was not always so democratic. Indeed, in the 1980’s Taiwan’s evolution from an authoritarian regime to a democratic government was not without violence. Several such incidents inspired Adam Kane’s Formosa Betrayed (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday.

When Prof. Henry Wen, a Taiwanese democracy activist based on the real life Chen Wen-chen, is gunned down in Chicago, the local PD call in the FBI. Special Agent Jake Kelly barely looks old enough to shave, but when all leads point to a conspiracy based in Taiwan, he is sent to Taipei to liaison with the local authorities. Inevitably, Kelly concludes high ranking government officials must be complicit in Wen’s assassination. As he pursues the investigation, Kelly clashes with a shadowy American diplomat sans portfolio and dumps a boatload of trouble on the doorstep of Ming, a local democracy activist with a hot sister.

Dawson’s Creek alumnus James Van Der Beek does not bring much presence or heft to the film as the intrepid protagonist. Basically, he stumbles across the screen, periodically announcing “I did not sign up for this” to anyone within earshot. As it happens, Formosa’s supporting cast is far more interesting than its bland lead. Writer-producer Will Tiao projects real pathos as Ming and the bizarrely under-utilized Mintita Wattanakul makes quite an impression as Ming’s sister Maysing. Perhaps the most intriguing turn comes from respected Hong Kong actor Kenneth Tsang, whose mysterious and possibly sympathetic General Tse becomes emblematic of the film’s somewhat murky vision of Taiwan under martial law.

As Formosa opens and closes, it takes pains to observe Taiwan’s vulnerability to PRC aggression. Yet, most of the film is a highly unflattering broadside aimed at the ruling KMT party, dominated by the survivors of the Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists and their families. Written by Tiao, a one-time aid to moderate Republican Senator Nancy Kassebaum, Formosa explicitly suggests that the PRC needs the ROC, but the self-sufficient (and now democratic) ROC does not need the PRC. It also underscores the irony that both Communist China and the KMT advocate a “One China” policy, whereas Formosa natives are more likely to support an explicitly independent Taiwan. How the Mainland Communists would receive the film is anyone’s guess, especially considering it is the KMT that now advocates closer ties to the PRC, rather than the DDP, Taiwan’s pro-independence opposition party.

As a political thriller, Formosa is pretty standard stuff, but it focuses a spotlight on an often shunned island of democracy amid some very treacherous waters. It is certainly worth noting that Taiwan voluntarily became a democracy without any notable sanctions or Hollywood protests. In fact, Taiwan seems to bear out Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s thesis on the malleability of authoritarian regimes as opposed to the repressive rigidity of statist totalitarian systems. Still, it is hard to tell if the makers of Formosa would agree with such an assessment, considering its inconsistent implications. Somewhat diverting but hardly essential, Formosa opens Friday (2/26) at the Village East.