Sunday my wife and I went to a screening of Will Tiao's movie, Formosa Betrayed. Based on historical events, it tells the story of an American FBI agent sent to Taiwan in 1983 after a Taiwanese-American professor is murdered in the US. The agent quickly finds himself in over his head as he balances his desire to get to the bottom of the murder with the pressures on him coming from the US and from the martial law government in Taiwan. After witnessing (and experiencing) the brutality that the US-supported government visits upon the pro-democracy Taiwanese citizens, and after getting no help from the American liaison in Taiwan, Agent Jake Kelly returns to the US and, disillusioned, quits the FBI.
We'd seen the film before (in fact, we have a DVD of it), but what drew us into Cambridge was the chance to see Tiao (writer, producer, and actor in the movie) and ask him some questions during an after-screening Q&A session.
There was a good crowd in the church. The people who were there--at least the ones who asked questions--didn't seem to know very much about Taiwan's history, so I was hesitant to ask the questions I came to ask, preferring to hear the rest of the audience ask their questions about Taiwan's history. It was gratifying to see how interested they were after watching the movie. I think that's Tiao's point. As he said, Taiwan is basically the only reason that might lead the US and China into an armed conflict (though I think I'd phrase that differently, as China's attitude or actions regarding Taiwan are the only reasons), so it's important that Americans have some understanding about the status and history of the island. While this movie is a fictionalized representation of the kinds of events that actually took place during the martial law period in Taiwan (which only ended in 1987), it does a service to the cause of helping Americans understand some of the recent history of Taiwan.
I asked Tiao about what the main character Jake Kelly would do next, and he kind of laughed and said, maybe join an NGO? He talked about how Jake represented friends of his growing up who had an idealistic notion of how democracy was supposed to work and then found out that it's not working the way that you'd hope that it would. I think Jake is in some ways a George Kerr-type figure, though Kerr knew more about what was going on in Taiwan than Jake does at the beginning of the movie. Jake's also sort of a Ralph Barton figure (though Tiao told me he never read Vern Sneider's novel, A Pail of Oysters). They all (including Kerr, actually) come to know Taiwan and the Taiwanese through personal relationships, and it's through the suffering of those people they've come to love that they are given a different perspective on how things are actually operating there. Their later commitment to Taiwan also grows out of the suffering of their loved ones. My guess is that Jake Kelly is going to write articles or a book about what happened, or start to make public speeches about what he saw and experienced, much as Barton commits to doing at the end of Vern Sneider's novel. (Some people might find it amusing that I'm speculating about the future of a fictional character, but I think it's worthwhile to think about the trajectory the plot would take if the story continued, particularly when the story is based on real and contemporary events.)
Interestingly, an earlier treatment that I quoted years ago from the movie's website concludes with Kelly "return[ing] to the States, frustrated with his knowledge and lack of
power to do anything about it—when he is invited to testify before the
U.S. Congress in Washington D.C. and finally given the chance to declare
the truth." This last part didn't actually happen in the final version. I wish I had had the chance to ask Tiao about the change to the ending. Maybe he'll comment on this post and let me know what led to the decision to change the ending. Thanks in advance, Will!
It was also fascinating to find out that Tiao grew up in Manhattan, Kansas, where his parents were graduate students. I had read several years ago that there was a lot of Taiwan Independence activity at KSU in the mid 1960s (see the oral history, 一門留美學生的建國故事, for details), but I hadn't yet met anyone who was that close to such activity. He mentioned that KSU was often referred to as the 'military school for Taiwan independence' (台獨軍校).
Anyway, it was good to see the movie as a member of an audience larger than two people, and the opportunity to talk to the man responsible for putting it together was great. Thanks to Karin Lin for organizing this event!