Years in the making and produced on a shoestring budget, Formosa Betrayed has already played in select theaters in the US and Canada. Starting on August 6, it will finally be playing in the country whose story it strives to bring to a wider audience — that of Taiwan.
This author had a chance to see the much talked-about movie on Friday at a pre-screening in Ximending. Some Taiwanese Americans had already told me that, ostensibly for budgetary reasons (the movie cost US$7 million, pocket change by contemporary Hollywood standards), the Taiwan scenes were actually filmed in Thailand. As a result, Taiwanese — along with expatriates who have lived in Taiwan long enough — can immediately tell that most actors and extras are Thai rather than Taiwanese, which is also reflected in how they speak. The same applies to the location, which anyone familiar with Taipei would tell you isn’t an accurate representation.
In the end, however, this doesn’t really matter. After all, big-budget movies have also, albeit for different reasons, used people from another ethnic group, and different locales, to tell “historical” stories. Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi playing a Japanese geisha on a set in California is a perfect example of this.
What makes Formosa Betrayed work as a movie is that it is actually quite entertaining, has very few longueurs and flows well. It makes good use of non-linear storytelling and foreshadowing. Furthermore, the main actors do a convincing job and have some pretty intense scenes. Beyond the pure entertainment value, which should attract people who otherwise would not be interested in a political movie about little-known, distant Taiwan, is the fact that it tells an important story, one that is inspired by actual events.
It is important to emphasize that the movie is not a documentary, nor does it pretend to portray the era with airtight accuracy. In fact, for the Taiwanese who lived during that dark period in Taiwan’s history, or who, like this author, have made Taiwan their specialization, certain anachronisms will catch the eye, such as large poster, with dictator Chiang Kai-shek’s figure and text calling on Taiwan to “retake” the mainland, or the presence of military and police on almost every street corner. While these scenes would have been realistic for a movie taking place in the 1960s or 1970s, they are slightly inaccurate in a 1980s setting, when (a now-dead) Chiang’s dream of retaking the mainland had long been seen as pure folly, and where police brutality, though still existent, was no longer as overt as it is portrayed in the movie.
That said, by mixing fiction with historical fact, Formosa Betrayed manages to make the White Terror era and the 228 Massacre of 1947 not only alive again, but also interesting. That part of Taiwan’s history, successfully effaced by the regime responsible for the atrocities through propaganda, education, and a system of fear that lingered on well after Martial Law was lifted in 1987, is little known by those who either did not live through it or who are not from Taiwan. And yet, it was formative to the nation’s psyche and helps explain the political rift that still exists on the island. It also makes it easier to understand why many Taiwanese who lived during that dark period, are apprehensive at President Ma Ying-jeou’s courting of authoritarian China. Theirs isn’t irrational fear, as many media would portray it, but one that is founded on first-hand experience of relatives being arrested, taken away, locked away for years, tortured and, in many instances, killed by the authorities.
This regime of fear, whose deadly hand extended to the US in the form of murder of dissidents (often with the help of triad organizations) — and is the core of the movie — has conveniently been forgotten by many who now hope for rapprochement between Taipei and Beijing. Younger generations of Taiwanese, those born in the 1990s, know very little about the other Taiwan, the one that a mere 30 years ago was more akin to China than the vibrant, free, safe and wealthy democracy that it is today. People didn’t talk about such things as 228 back then, lest they be taken away by the authorities. Many today still cannot talk about it, conditioned as they were to avoid discussing such dangerous topics.
As a result, generations of Taiwanese suffer from amnesia, and as long as the story isn’t told, the catharsis that is required for healing as a nation will not occur. While older generations of Taiwanese have, in some cases, sought to tell tomorrow’s leaders about what it was like to live under the White Terror, Taiwanese youth today does not make for a receptive audience. In many cases, this is ancient history for them, and they would rather focus on getting a good education and a good job (and play video games, chat with friends and read Japanese manga). Documentaries, history books and academic articles — the domain in which 228 and the White Terror have been explored — simply has no appeal to young people.
That is why a movie like Formosa Betrayed is so important — and timely. The format is far likelier to appeal to young people than jargon-filled academic discussions or late-night political talk shows. It is also far likelier to interest non-Taiwanese and awaken enough curiosity in some, who will then turn to the history books or pay more attention to what is currently happening in the Taiwan Strait.
In many ways, art is a far more powerful educator than even the best speech or academic work, and has the capacity to engender emotional reactions that simply cannot be aroused by, say, works of non-fiction or documentaries. It is that emotional connection that turns forgotten causes into objects of mobilization. Taiwan has long been an orphan, easy to ignore or subsume into China, because its people (out of fear, perhaps) haven’t told their story to the world in a way that appeals to people’s imagination. Formosa Betrayed does that, just as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List did in its treatment of the Holocaust, which eventually created a new wave of public interest (even among non-Jews) in the question.
It is also aptly titled, as it gradually dawns on the audience that the betrayal is not so much by the authoritarian regime in Taiwan, but rather by the US, which conveniently looked the other way when their man in Taipei, be it Chiang or his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, served their purposes in the Cold War, even if this implied ruling Taiwanese with an iron fist. There was nothing free about “free China,” yet this is what government officials in Washington called it. Independence and democracy movements were nuisances and terribly inconvenient to a government that was fighting its ideological (and sometimes hot) war against communism.
Fast-forward to today, and the war of ideologies has been replaced by regional integration, free trade and stock markets. China, the old enemy, is no longer regarded in that light, while Taiwan is an active democracy. And yet, the same old aspirations for freedom and right to choose one’s future continue to be regarded as nuisances and “trouble-making.” In many ways, the conflict between ideals and geopolitical imperatives, remains as true today as it was during the period covered in the movie. In one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, a young, idealistic FBI agent, skillfully played by James Van Der Beek, has a shouting match with his boss back in Washington after returning from Taipei. Political forces want him to ignore human rights violations in Taiwan; his sense of justice, however, tells him this is what really matters. The conflict isn’t fiction: It was alive then, and it is alive today, despite the different times.
By fictionalizing a story about a different time, Formosa Betrayed makes its important message timeless, which is what art is all about. Taiwan’s story is a fascinating one, one that the world ignores at its own loss. Perhaps this movie will get the ball rolling, and who knows, maybe director Ang Lee — a product of this land — will make his own big-budget Taiwanese version of Schindler’s List one day.
The DVD of Formosa Betrayed will be released in the US on July 13.