Formosa Betrayed is a feature film set in the 1980’s about FBI Agent Jake Kelly’s investigation of the brutal murder of a Taiwanese-American professor on U.S. soil. With the help of his partner Tom Braxton and a sharp Chicago police detective, Agent Kelly discovers that the murderers have fled to Taiwan. Inspired by real events, the film follows the intertwining and complicated story of the Taiwanese and the United States governments, as well as Taiwan’s emergence as a country once ruled under marshal law but now thriving with democracy.
After making the rounds at several film festivals, Formosa Betrayed was picked up last fall for theatrical release by Screen Media Films and will premiere in select cities during the weekend of February 28th (For those of you who know something about Taiwan, “2/28” is historically significant.)
The annual Lunar New Year celebration organized by local Bay Area Taiwanese American organization featured a special panel discussion about Formosa Betrayed, with director Adam Kane (whose TV credits include Heroes, Pushing Daisies, Mercy), actor Tzi Ma (Rush Hour, 24), actor, writer & producer Will Tiao, actors Henry Chu and Adam Wang, and associate producer Evita Huang. Lead actor, James Van Der Beek of Dawson’s Creek fame was on the East Coast for press interviews and was unable to attend. Ho Chie Tsai, founder of TaiwaneseAmerican.org, moderated the discussion before opening it up to general Q&A.
I first learned of the film when Will Tiao was looking for investors in the film a few years back. Since then, Will raised over $5 million+ dollars in “shares” of $25,000 chunks as he literally traveled across the United States and Taiwan to raise money to finance the film, even before a script was written or any actors or directors were attached to the film. As Will stated, if you want to tell stories that others are unaware or unwilling to finance, you have to do it yourself, just as Matt Damon and Ben Affleck did with Good Will Hunting.
Actor Tzi Ma said he has never met a more cohesive and committed Asian ethnic group as he has with Taiwanese Americans, which personally doesn’t surprise me. When an ethnic group and country like Taiwan are marginalized by China and — through China’s efforts — the world community, there is a certain survivalist mentality instilled in the community.
Henry and Adam are fairly new actors cutting their teeth in Hollywood and are happy to have real speaking roles in a major film production – one of the cast members was selected during an open casting call in Chicago. Evita, a recent college graduate, was amazed at the opportunity to be deeply involved with the production and promotion of the film, given that most of her fellow peers are still working on the production assistant level.
There were a few controversial topics regarding the narrative of Formosa Betrayed, including the complaint over featuring a lead white male actor in a film about Taiwanese history. Will Taio and the other writer/producers decided to move forward with James Van Der Beek to make the film more appealing to a mass audience that extended past the Taiwanese or Asian American community, much like how the character of Sydney Schanberg provided important context about Cambodia and Dith Pran in The Killing Fields. In this case, James Van Der Beek’s character would be able to introduce facts and background information in the plot to the audience. Before directing this film, director Adam Kane admitted that he didn’t know much about Taiwan or had ever traveled there.
Another controversy was the location of the actual production, parts of which were filmed in Bangkok rather than Taiwan. Will and Adam decided this for many reasons, including maintaining the film’s setting in the 1980s, which was hard to find in Taiwan since not too many places in Taipei resemble Taiwan in the 1980s due its rapid modernization. Secondly, Bangkok boasts a better film industry infrastructure over Taipei, and shooting the film in Taiwan would require them to ship equipment there. Thirdly, they feared that the sensitive nature of this political thriller would have been too costly to film in Taipei and cause their production shut down for whatever reason. (The ruling party for most of Taiwan’s rule since the 1940’s has been the KMT, which regained rule in 2008). I also believe a major reason was purely financial: it has to cost less to shoot a film in Bangkok than Taipei. With all the different location and limited budget, it’ll be interesting to see if one can tell if the film was shot in Bangkok instead of Taipei.
They also answered my own question over the movie’s title and why they picked Formosa Betrayed instead of something along the lines of “Taiwan Betrayed.” Their response was interesting and logical: Taiwan was given the name Ilha Formosa by the Portuguese, which means “Beautiful Island.” If the name “Taiwan” was used, most audiences who know little to nothing about the country would not care to see such a movie. However, “Formosa” sounds more ambiguous and mysterious, which could intrigue audiences into at least learning more about the film.
After the jump, check out a quick interview with Ho Chie Tsai, founder of TaiwaneseAmerican.org, before the Q&A panel with the panelists before they addressed the crowd. Once the whole panel discussion is available online, I’ll be sure to link to it in the comments.