Formosa Betrayed is a throwback in our golden age of documentaries. It’s a highly fictionalized political chase movie whose single and solitary goal is to enlighten us about historical facts that we need to know more about. There’s something admirable in 2009 about going to all the trouble of hiring recognizable actors, getting 1983-ish cars [although not much else is period-specific except the Pan Am jet], scouting locations in Thailand to find places that look like Taiwan did under martial law, and hiring several writers to put together a fictional screenplay, instead of just making a documentary. The two movies it immediately calls to mind are Body of Lies [Ridley Scott, 2008] and Amazing Grace [Michael Apted, 2006]. Both are films I liked a lot – this one I respect but its flaws are glaring.

Amazing Grace was made to mark the 200th anniversary of Britain’s Slave Trade Act, whose passage was the life’s work of the film’s hero William Wilberforce. Ioan Gruffudd is perfectly poised between naive and stoic as Wilberforce, and the setting is as immersive as The Libertine but to slightly different effect. It’s a great accomplishment, judged as a film made for political reasons. My heart certainly swelled.

It's the sort of film that gets cheered by packed theaters at 30 film festivals, then goes straight to DVD.

As for Formosa Betrayed, it was entirely independently financed, and produced by diplomatic official, economist, co-writer, and co-star Will Tiao for the purpose of cluing Americans in to the fraught nature of Taiwan’s surprisingly recent turn toward democracy [here’s an interview with his college newspaper]. I felt like if they couldn’t show the details of real-life events, they should have made a documentary with a somewhat wider scope than fictional FBI Agent Jake Kelly being clued in to US complicity in the death of a fictional anti-Kuomintang professor. Because the story on which it’s based [see David Kaplan’s Fires of the Dragon] is pretty amazing. Not to mention the unique nature of the US-Taiwan relationship, which the movie sort of avoids in favor of a narrative where the democracy in Taiwan depends on the US being shamed out of supporting its military dictatorship. From that Will Tiao interview:

Of all the potential flash points with China, the only one that could potentially lead to military conflict between the United States and China is the issue of Taiwan and Taiwan independence. There’s over 1,000 missiles pointed at Taiwan right now, and if Taiwan declares [itself] by name or if countries begin to recognize Taiwan, that could provoke China to military conflict. The United States is bound by what’s known as the Taiwan Relations Act to help defend Taiwan if it comes under attack. I think most Americans are completely ignorant of this fact.

The film explores these [issues] in an entertaining way, but we hope that at the end of the day, that not only will [audiences] be entertained, but they’ll learn something along the way. And hopefully they’ll begin to research on their own, because the movie definitely provokes more questions than it provides answers.

Honestly, the film didn’t make me any less ignorant of those facts. I did start to research on my own, so it wins.

Body of Lies didn’t thrill many people, mainly because of the awful romantic subplot [or is it a subplot?!? Because you see, this seasoned, ultra-competent agent has a secret weakness, which his enemies can use to ruin all his plans: a woman he has nothing in common with, whom he met a week ago]. Introducing the Western world to Golshifteh Farahani as DiCaprio’s love interest is worthwhile in itself, but there’s enough going on in that story without the leisurely nurse flirtations.

Formosa Betrayed likewise has its protagonist learn about the real issues by getting embroiled in a local family’s struggles. Instead of a hot demure babe, Jake Kelly [James Van Der Beek] makes friends with an activist [played by Will Tiao] who gets really, really emotional giving brief synopses of the Kuomintang’s flight to Taiwan from the mainland and its mistreatment of the locals. He starts going rogue more or less instantly, and his superiors treat him like a ten-year-old. In Body of Lies I could see where Russell Crowe’s character was coming from, I could see how he got that way, I could imagine DiCaprio turning into him someday. In Formosa Betrayed the American characters have one note and are mostly ogres.

Except of course for Jake Kelly, who starts the opening narration with “I love America. I believe it’s worth defending with my life.” before telling us the emotional journey he’s about to undergo.

John “Be heard. John Heard.” Heard plays his mentor in the FBI’s Chicago office, and he’s a boilerplate gruff vaguely-racist year-until-retirement type. His boss is Chelcie Ross, who does the condescending tough guy so well. Wendy Crewson plays the State Dept. liaison who leads him around Taiwan, and she’s a boilerplate no-nonsense woman in a suit who swears. The Taiwanese officials are all glad-handing phonies. There could have been a little more done to explain why they invited Jake Kelly to “observe” their corrupt police work, since they don’t give him even a token task to do and they don’t really try to get him on their side.

Golshifteh Farahani (R) was directed by Asghar Farhadi (L) in 2009's "About Elly", a fantastic film of class- and guilt-driven suspense.

I don’t want to try to make fun of James Van Der Beek, a decade on from Varsity Blues. He may be a good stage actor, he’s a good TV actor, and here he plays the role of “law enforcement guy who goes to crime scenes, picks things up and looks at them” that we know from so many TV shows. The difference between Jake Kelly and Horatio Caine is that he doesn’t crouch down to look at things. He has imperious poise and posture and waits for things to be presented to him. He’s an FBI agent based in Chicago, he has a neat 5 o’clock shadow every morning, he always looks either concerned, worried or confused, and he’s one of the most underwritten protagonists of this millennium.

Who is this guy? What’s his backstory? I genuinely think they forgot to give him one. Does he live in an apartment? Does he have a wife? A husband? A dog? Parents? Friends? Is he a Chicago native? You don’t realize how important these plot-unrelated factors are until they’re gone. Is he an everyman, representing the audience in his curiosity [and ignorance] about Taiwan?

The lowest-common-denominator approach doesn’t work for a protagonist like this. You don’t get a broad audience to identify with someone by removing all his distinguishing traits except “good guy”. Unless he actually does exceptional things. But JVDB’s character doesn’t show any particular knowledge, or curiosity, or competence. He shows bravery, but it’s not exactly heroic behavior. He has no plan beyond the next move, and he assumes the State Department will shield him from any real danger. Formosa Betrayed avoids the “first world hero saves third-world victims” trope, and in fact he actually seems like his goal is to be a pawn in the struggle against Kuomintang martial law. Just tell him what to do, democracy activists, he trusts you completely.

The direction is generally invisible, but there's a cool zoom-out just before JVDB's audience with this official.

Finally let’s address some nice things about the film.

Aside from having the best of intentions, a great title, and more plausibility than, say, Body of Lies, this movie makes the most of its combination of low budget and Thai locations. The extended demonstration/rally/crowd scene involves thousands of people and it’s kinetic, dangerous, exciting. A lot of the scenes are rushed, but this set piece lasts a while and builds gradually.

Will Tiao’s performance is something special. It’s always interesting to see an actor playing a character he’s identified with for most of his life [albeit this character is a composite]. I also thought the faux-prostitute sequence was very sharply done, and the one real action scene [early in the film, in Chicago] is confusingly great. There’s one memorable line of dialogue, which we see twice.

How does arresting me prevent a Communist takeover? Where are you going with this?

That sums up a guy who’s never questioned authority before, now surrounded by grim-faced people and their baffling cover-ups. But not much else happens to explore how out of his depth this guy is. Sometimes he acts like he’s in charge, sometimes he wants to be led around. Maybe he makes sense as a conflicted person, but we don’t know who he is. I would like to see something true to life. Or if we’re going to have this level of fictionalization, I would like to see an actual action movie [e.g. Green Zone] or a satire [e.g. The President’s Last Bang]. Use this review the way the viewer was expected to use the movie — as a starting point to further research. It’s probably going to be on Netflix Watch Instantly forever, so you can at least check out the rally scene.

Finally, at one point the following line is uttered. You try saying it fast.

Wang was Wen’s mentor. Wen’s widow wanted me to say hi.