Formosa Betrayed‘s opening is a marvel of incoherence. Special Agent Jake Kelly (James Van Der Beek, plus five o’clock shadow) walks through an airport with a murder witness, waving a badge and telling anyone who’ll listen, “F.B.I..” A gun goes off (source unknown) and everybody dives, and the next thing we know he’s in an office, where a female superior roars, “You have no authority here! This is Taiwan!” The year is 1983, but the incessantly ensuing title cards—“Chicago, Two Weeks Earlier,” “One Week Later”—throw even that into doubt. Kelly, we learn, has gone to Taiwan to solve a college professor’s murder. He’s supposed to nod and act polite—“If we wanted to send Elliot Ness, we would have sent Elliot Ness”—but can’t help getting involved: “It’s tough to lay low when you’re discovering the Taiwanese government had Wen murdered.”
The words “Inspired by Actual Events” never portend good, but I doubt the real-life events proved as fortune cookie-cutter as these: a quiet kitchen talk accompanied by the sound of a ticking hallway clock; a man walking down a hallway, open-mouthed, as someone woodenly delivers exposition; and shady government types using words like “unfortunate.” When people speak otherwise, their words are inevitably hard-boiled (“He’s crawling up my ass”), passionately telegraphed (“You know, sometimes I think this government spends more of our money on entertainment than defense”), or vaguely ominous (“Someone once said, ‘Be careful for what you wish’).
This is a lot of Graham Greene hugger-mugger, the tale of a rube who believes that he can do good abroad. Greene’s genius stroke in The Quiet American was to tell the story of a young man’s dumb, muddled quest to kill communism in Vietnam from the perspective of an older, wiser, far more cynical man, so that we can see how truly futile the mission is. Yet Formosa sticks with Kelly’s perspective throughout, and at times the film’s ideas of how people behave are as callow and unfocused as his.
Yet, much as I dislike many aspects of Formosa‘s black-and-white view of human behavior, I like its naïve sense of hope. Kelly goes to a rally at one point where Taiwanese people use the dead professor as a rallying cry to fight imperialist China. I couldn’t help but think of Z, but rousing as that film is, Yves Montand’s dead politico ultimately stands for nothing more specific than anti-nukes and world peace; here something real is at stake, and very much so (Taiwan’s declared itself an independent nation by now, but China still has missiles pointed at the island). Occasionally, the movie slips into documentary footage of real-life atrocities, like Chinese soldiers pushing Taiwanese prisoners into the ocean. The thriller plot, muffed and muffled, is a pretense for the movie to give a pro-Taiwan cry.
For all that the movie criticizes Taiwan’s pre-independence government, though, it has little to say about America’s misdeeds abroad; Kelly spits out a line about supplying arms to Nicaragua, but the movie doesn’t address how the U.S.‘s fight against communism throughout much of Asia strengthened and gave succor to anti-Red despots who made their peoples’ lives hell. The movie opens announcing that its title comes from the original Portuguese sailors’ name for Taiwan, suggesting sentimentality for Western paternal control, and it ends with the lines on screen, “Because of events like the ones depicted in this film, Taiwan became a democracy,” as though movie stars saved the day. When Van Der Beek stands in his room at film’s end and looks forlornly out a window, Formosa‘s attacking America’s complacency, rather than what the government’s actually done. The U.S. still doesn’t recognize Taiwan as independent, but even if it did, it would need to give help.
I once saw Noam Chomsky speak about revolutions in developing countries. Someone asked a question about what college students could do. Chomsky replied that, when he went to South America, people didn’t ask him that question—if they were dissatisfied, they took to the streets. Chomsky’s contrast has problems, not the least of which is first-world mythmaking of third-world behavior (as The Quiet American engages in, and as Formosa Betrayed does). But the sense of disempowerment the student offered, and Chomsky’s refusal to empower it, got at something accurate about Americans. They generally don’t try to solve other nations’ problems, nor care to; many more Americans worked for Obama and the Democrats in the fall of 2008 than are working for Haiti now. Though it’s set in 1983, Formosa Betrayed‘s an appropriate movie for America’s current political climate, in which the audacity of hope has turned into a self-involved kind of frustration and despair.