Opens Fri., April 2
American moviegoers attending the political Formosa Betrayed may not be completely up to date with the recent, questionable history of Taiwan. But they need not worry. Not only do they have as their guide a blank slate, American protagonist (played by James Van Der Beek), the screenwriters—all six of them—saw no guilt in dispensing reams upon reams of exposition in the least elegant way imaginable.
On several occasions, the one-time Dawson Leery simply walks around town with a Taiwanese local as they upchuck protracted history lessons, explaining with condescending fuzziness how Taiwan, also known as Formosa (16th-century Portuguese explorers’ name for the island—thanks, opening text crawl!), is part of the Republic of China, how it is not allowed independence lest it be bombed into oblivion by the mainland, how the Taiwanese government is so paranoid of this that they’ve curtailed basic civil liberties and so on and so forth.
Sometimes, instead of a leisurely stroll, the oral historian sits in a room and holds court. These lessons are actually intercut with archival footage. As though this were airing not in a theater but on the History Channel.
Radiating a weariness that feels too real, JVDB plays Jake Kelly, a brooding, three-day-beard FBI agent with a generic, Tom Clancy-esque name whose investigations into the assassination of a Taiwanese expat at a midwestern university take him to Taipei. (Actually, Bangkok.) There, thanks to a cabal of rebels risking their lives, he finds the murder reaches up to the highest levels of government. Like many noble extollers of truth (or alleged truth, anyway), Formosa Betrayed goes about broadcasting its findings in the most artless way possible.
Presenting the tale in Manichean terms, it depicts a government so corrupt, so crushing it barely bothers hiding its assassinations, sometimes doing them right in the open. Western presence that isn’t played by a washed-up WB star isn’t much better: an American diplomat (Wendy Crewson) might as well be a part of the regime, while Kelly’s barking superior (Chelcie Ross) shrugs off the atrocities on the other side of the world. (Meanwhile, Kelly’s partner, played by John Heard, is a racist, but a lovable one.) Made by mostly Western filmmakers, Formosa Betrayed could stand some perspective directly from Taiwan, if not for better socio-political insight but perhaps for aesthetic reasons, as well.
The tale of the young Benito Mussolini and his jilted Ida is told with muscular camerawork, a bombastic score and ravenous performances.