Formosa Betrayed -- Film Review

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Illuminating another dark chapter in recent political history and U.S. foreign policy, "Formosa Betrayed" is a straightforward, workmanlike procedural "inspired by actual events" during the communism-obsessed Reagan era.

James Van Der Beek leads the film's efficient, fuss-free performances, playing an FBI agent awakened to the reality behind the official story when a murder investigation takes him to Taiwan, aka Formosa. Given the island's economic importance and the ongoing dispute over its identity and independence, the story's international implications still reverberate.

The indie, which opens Friday, is more informative than cinematic, and its theatrical release should be supplemented by a healthy run as a home video title.

Director Adam Kane's refusal to exaggerate the drama's sweep is commendable, and the script, credited to four writers, refreshingly doesn't make the American's personal redemption more important than wide-ranging political revelations. But the film's bare-bones expository approach is also a detriment, particularly in the early going, which has the flat, uninspired feel of a small-screen whodunit.

"Formosa" gains power as Van Der Beek's Agent Kelly is drawn deeper into the shadows, where his handlers, in particular Wendy Crewson's American diplomat, don't want him to go. It's 1983, and a Taiwan-born Chicago professor has been murdered. After the chief suspect (well played by Adam Wang) flees to Taiwan, Kelly is elected to follow him, his jaded, good-ol'-boy senior colleague (John Heard) having no interest in returning to Asia.

Once there, strictly as an observer to the local investigation -- and an increasingly sidelined one -- Kelly follows a tip and seeks out a renowned intellectual, whose emissaries spirit him through dark alleys and into noonday demonstrations for independence from mainland China. While Crewson's white-suited diplomat cautions Kelly not to be a "cowboy" and to heed the fiercely anti-Communist Taiwan-U.S. alliance, he experiences the everyday reach of martial law and comes to understand the Taiwan government's role in the murder case.

At the heart of the film is the affecting performance of Will Tiao, who also produced and co-wrote the story. As pro-independence activist Ming, he's called upon to supply the facts concerning a 1947 atrocity known as the 228 Massacre, but also to represent the emotional toll on native Taiwanese struggling to be free of foreign control, including that of Beijing.

Focusing on historical forces, the screenplay dispenses with personal backstory for its lead character. Van Der Beek conveys the outrage of a patriot forced to reevaluate his faith in Uncle Sam. But like all the performances here, its nuance is undercut by often-stilted dialogue in a script that tends toward redundant voice-over commentary and on-the-nose speechifying.

At its plainspoken best, the U.S.- and Thailand-shot film is an eye-opening history lesson more than an atmospheric thriller. It's nonetheless chilling as it exposes the machinations between countries with no official relationship.

Opens: Friday, Feb. 26 (Screen Media Films)
Production: Will Tiao, Formosa Films
Cast: James Van Der Beek, Wendy Crewson, John Heard, Will Tiao, Tzi Ma, Leslie Hope, Kenneth Tsang, Chelcie Ross, Mintita Wattanakul, Adam Wang, Nirut Sirichanya, Tonray Ho
Director: Adam Kane
Screenwriters: Charlie Stratton, Yann Samuell, Brian Askew, Nathaniel Goodman
Story by: Will Tiao, Katie Swain
Producers: Will Tiao, David Cluck, Adam Kane
Director of photography: Irek Hartowicz
Production designer: Anthony Rivero Stabley
Music: Jeff Danna
Co-producers: Jonna Walsh, Echo Lin
Costume designer: Karyn Wagner
Editor: Howard E. Smith
Rated R, 103 minutes
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