by Jeff Meyers
When you hear dialogue like: "So, what do you know about the history of my country?" you know you're in for a whole lot of exposition. While its pro-Taiwan agenda has a few important facts to teach American audiences about Chiang Kai-shek's massacre of 30,000 islanders (aka the "228 Incident") as well as the thorny issues surrounding U.S.-Chinese relations, Formosa Betrayed is essentially a Wikipedia entry dressed up as a clumsy political thriller.
The modestly budgeted movie, partially funded by Taiwanese expats, does a decent job of laying out its political agenda, but struggles to keep its editorializing from subverting the cable-TV-ready plot.
Set in the mid-'80s, at the tail end of Taiwan's White Terror period of martial law, the film's supposedly inspired by the real-life murders of two pro-independence activists. James Van Der Beek plays an FBI agent sent to the island formerly known as Formosa to observe and assist in the investigation of an assassinated Taiwanese-American professor. Instead of justice, however, he encounters secretive government officials determined to thwart his efforts to find the killers. In true American-movie fashion, Van Der Beek oversteps his authority in an attempt to reveal a government conspiracy and ends up implicating American interests. (In case you miss the point, we see several photos of Mao and Nixon shaking hands.)
There are many examples of engaging thrillers with bold political statements, unfortunately, Formosa Betrayed's producer and co-writer, Will Tiao (who also plays a Taiwanese activist) allows agenda to overshadow entertainment. Heavy-handed speechifying, poorly sketched characters, a lack of urgency, and a narrative that ineffectively flashes backward and forward undermine any chance for real suspense. Revelations are unceremoniously dropped into Van Der Beek's lap rather than discovered, and the final-act melodrama comes off as a desperate attempt to redeem the scattershot plot. TV director Adam Kane valiantly tries to keep the focus and energy on the thriller elements but is hamstrung by a script that can't keep its mouth shut long enough to excite.
With more than a thousand Chinese missiles pointed at Taiwan, and America's commitment to help defend the island nation without actually acknowledging its sovereignty, there's plenty of grist for the dramatic mill. Tragically, Formosa Betrayed is further evidence that the road to good intentions is paved with lackluster movies.