Hollywood film tackles Taiwan's martial law era
'Formosa' tells tale of little-known U.S., Taiwan historyHONG KONG -- When China and Taiwan split in 1949, the China's communist rulers were demonized by the West and their defeated opponents on the island touted as guardians of freedom. The Nationalists were anything but.
Chiang Kai-shek ruled the leaf-shaped territory with a heavy hand. On the pretext of containing communism, he jailed and tortured activists, censored newspapers and books and restricted the use of the local Taiwan dialect.
Now a Taiwan-American filmmaker is using Hollywood storytelling to bring this dark period of the island's history to a broader audience.
"Formosa Betrayed," released in the U.S. over the weekend, is partly based on actual events.
It follows an FBI agent who travels to the island to help investigate the killing of a Taiwan economics professor outside Chicago. The lead role is played by James Van Der Beek, an American actor best known for playing the title character in the hit teen TV drama "Dawson's Creek."
The producer and writer is Will Tiao, a former U.S. congressional aide and trade official who moved into acting. He said he was inspired by his own family history: His father, a professor at Kansas State University, was blacklisted and spied on by fellow Taiwanese studying in the U.S. who were hired by the Taiwan government to monitor the politics of their peers.
In "Formosa Betrayed" -- Portuguese seafarers dubbed Taiwan "Ilha Formosa," or "Beautiful Isle" when they passed the island in 1542 -- Tiao and director Adam Kane offer a stark look at authoritarian Nationalist rule in the 1980s.
Tiao has a supporting role as a Taiwanese activist who is tortured by blowtorch during an interrogation and whose wife and young daughter are killed.
Military police in khaki uniforms and white helmets are everywhere. They drop by a restaurant and arrest a customer, seemingly at random, after labeling him a communist spy. They fire into a peaceful protest organized by anti-government activists.
The main plot is the murder of the dissident Taiwanese economics professor on U.S. soil - a story reminiscent of actual events.
In 1984, two Taiwan gangsters acting on the orders of a military intelligence official gunned down Taiwanese-American journalist Henry Liu in the garage of his suburban San Francisco home after he published a critical biography of Chiang's son, Chiang Ching-kuo.
In the movie, Taiwan officials track down two gunmen behind the economics professor's murder and kill them before they can talk.
In real life, Taiwan courts sentenced Liu's two murderers and the military intelligence official to life terms in 1985 - but all three were freed on parole in 1991. The Taiwan government said the intelligence official acted on his own, but it paid Liu's widow $1.5 million in 1990 as part of an out-of-court settlement.
Van Der Beek said he was shocked when he read the script. Ignorant of Taiwan history, he prepared for his role by meeting with Taiwanese-Americans who were harassed by spies.
"When you have people thanking you for doing this movie with tears in their eyes, the sense of responsibility becomes that much more immediate. I hope they're happy with it. We did it for them," he said.
Taiwan is now a democracy. The Nationalists ended martial law in 1987, launched democratic reforms and apologized for the atrocities they committed. The formerly outlawed opposition ruled from 2000 to 2008, before the Nationalists returned to power.
But the island's authoritarian past is still a topic sensitive enough that Tiao chose not to shoot on location, opting instead for the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand. That also made it easier to replicate Taiwan's rustic look of the 1980s, something that would have been difficult in the highly developed island today.
The filmmakers sought funding from the Taiwan government to make "Formosa Betrayed" but failed.
Producer Echo Lin said they applied for $4 million from the then-opposition-run government in October 2007. She said the proposal passed an initial round of screening by the government, but the filmmakers never heard back after the Nationalists won the presidential election in March 2008.
Taiwan's government disputes this. York Liao, the chief secretary of the Council for Economic Planning and Development, said the filmmakers withdrew their application for funding before the change of power.
Tiao said he raised most of his $8 million dollar budget from small investors in the U.S., Taiwan and Canada.
The filmmakers are still keen to show the movie in Taiwan, and Lin said several local distributors have expressed interest.