Formosa Betrayed follows an American FBI agent, Jake Kelly (James Van Der Beek), who is sent to Taiwan to investigate the murder of a Taiwanese American professor. While his job is technically to sit back and observe -- Don't be a cowboy, his superiors keep reminding him, let the Taiwanese officials do their jobs -- Kelly begins to suspect that the murder was not a result of Taiwanese gang activity, as he's been led to believe. He gets a tip that the Taiwanese KMT government are behind the murders, and soon he's angering his collegues back home for disobeying orders, keeping secrets from the American diplomat (Wendy Crewsen) who is trying to maintain peace, and being followed by the spies hired by the Taiwanese government, who are wondering what an American agent is doing at an anti-KMT Taiwanese-independence rally.
Actor/producer Will Tiao is the driving force behind Formosa Betrayed. After conceptualizing the story with Katie Swain, Tiao began a two-year-long grassroots effort to raise money for the film. He targeted Taiwanese American political groups, finding many first-generation Taiwanese Americans who were itching to have their story told on the big screen. While Formosa Betrayed has played at many mainstream festivals -- the film took home awards for Best Feature and Best Actor (James Van Der Beek) at the San Diego Film Festival -- one of Tiao's goals is to open up a dialogue between first and second generation Taiwanese Americans about Taiwan's history.
APA talks to Will Tiao and Tzi Ma about the making of Formosa Betrayed. Ma plays Minister Kuo, the government official who greets Kelly upon his arrival in Taiwan, and Tiao plays Ming, a local activist who might be Kelly's link to the truth.
Interview with Will Tiao and Tzi Ma
February 11, 2010
Interviewed by Ada Tseng
Camera by Craig Stubing
Video edit by Lu Lu
APA: Was the storyline in Formosa Betrayed inspired by the murders of writer Henry Liu and Carnegie Mellon professor Chen Wen-cheng in the early 80s?
Will Tiao: Those were amongst the cases. The White Terror period was a 40-year period, so there were a lot of stories that we took our inspiration from. An FBI agent who is investigating the murder of a Taiwanese intellectual, people being spied on by students who were hired by the government of Taiwan -- that all happened. My parents were actually spied on when they were at Kansas State University. They were part of the Taiwanese Student Association; there were other students from Taiwan who were given scholarships by the government, and part of the scholarship was to report on other students. My parents were reported on -- as were many of my investors -- and many of them were blacklisted, sent threatening letters, and harassed. They were, frankly, lucky, compared to other people who were jailed, tortured, and murdered. Overall, I'd say that many, many people in the Taiwanese community have experiences like this, to varying degrees.
APA: Is this a story that you've been wanting to tell for a long time?
Will: It's definitely something I've had in my head, in my heart, since I was a kid. I think that's why I went into politics. I had a career in politics for ten years before I came out to Hollywood. I was born in the States -- born and raised in Kansas -- so my first passion is American politics. But I've always known a lot about the Taiwan political situation.
APA: The issue of Taiwan independence is still a very controversial topic. Did either of you have any concerns going into this project?
Tzi Ma: As an actor, you can't think about controversy. If there was a film about the Holocaust or the Rape of Nanking, would I be interested? Of course I'd be interested! It is our responsibility as actors to bring these stories to the screen and to give the audience the opportunity to examine it and have a dialogue. If you look at all the roles I've played since 1975, if I had to worry about controversy, I would have never done The Quiet American. I would have never done Red Corner, Dante's Peak, or Red Doors. I would never have been on 24. I am a representative of all these places, governments, regimes, attitudes, and philosophies that some people may not agree with. But as an actor, I'm like a kid in a candy store. You're telling stories that are worthwhile.
Will: I believe the one thing that allowed us to do this is that we came from an American perspective. I'm Taiwanese American, and that gave me a bit of distance, because this is really what happened to my parents' generation. Of course, the ramifications of what happened to them still exist today, but bottom line, I was very specific about telling the story from an American perspective. That's why I have American writers. I have an American director. I'm the Taiwanese link; I hired people to make sure it looked and felt authentic enough, but we told this specifically from the American perspective, so we wouldn't be taking sides. We're asking questions.
Universally, after people see the film, they have more questions than answers. A lot of people were concerned that we would take sides, and it was tough to thread that needle, but I feel we did it. We were very careful the entire time. No political parties are named. No political figures, save for Chiang Kai-shek, are actually mentioned in the film. It's about representing a period of history that's fairly recent and very critical to the development of Taiwan as a democracy. That development of Taiwanese democracy has led to the issue of Taiwan independence, and I think it's a poorly-understood issue from all sides -- Chinese, Taiwanese, American. I hope that the film will create more discussion.
And this is the time! Recently, President Obama announced that he's going to sell $6.4 billion in arms to Taiwan. China immediately breaks off military relations, says that they're going to start sanctioning American companies that sell to Taiwan. In every article, it said, this is the single most contentious issue in US-China relations. I don't think people understand that, and we're the only American film ever to deal with this topic.
APA: [to Tzi Ma] How did you get involved with the project?
Tzi: Having a conversation with Will was really what convinced me to do this project, because he's so committed. His passion was so great that I really couldn't say no. [laughs] Although, at first I wanted to play the role of the professor. The professor only has one speech, but the speech was to die for. I just knew that speech was going to be a home run. But Will wanted me to play Minister Kuo, who is the government official who tries to distract the investigator [played by James Van Der Beek] from investigating this particular murder. But then, I saw that there was also another role for a 50-something Asian man, the general [General Tse]. So I asked Will -- can I play all three roles? Can I play the general, professor, and Minister Kuo all in the same movie?
Will: [laughs] He wanted to be Eddie Murphy. Really who he wants to be is Eddie Murphy.
It's funny though -- I wrote the speech that Tzi is talking about. There were certain speeches I wrote, because there were certain historical and political facts that my investors wanted in the film. They wanted to make sure people understood certain things about Taiwan: for instance, that calling yourself Taiwanese at that time was basically treasonous. You couldn't speak Taiwanese in public. You had to speak Mandarin Chinese in schools, or you were punished. What the professor says in the speech were very specific things that they wanted in the film.
APA: Speaking of your investors, can you elaborate on how you raised money for the film?
Will: As someone who's worked in politics for a long time -- longer than I've worked in the movie industry -- I see everything through a political lens. That's just the way I'm trained. Some people use sports analogies -- they say they run it like a football or baseball team -- which makes sense for them because that's their background, but for me, it's politics. I ran it like a political campaign. It was very, very similar to how Obama, Clinton, and McCain raise money. In fact, I have investors who have invested in all three camps. I saw this movie as my candidate, and like every candidate, you have to raise money for it, you have to message it, and you have to brand it. Just like Obama would go to his base or McCain would go to his base to raise money, I went to my base to raise money -- which is the Taiwanese American community [laughs]. I worked with certain political organizations.
Although, I have an interesting story about my first fundraiser. A friend of mine -- Taiwanese American, late 30s, doctor in Honolulu, Hawaii -- calls me and says, "I am doing a speech to the Taiwanese Medical Association in Hawaii. It's about Vioxx and back pain, but why don't you come and pitch your movie?" [laughs]
I was like, "Um okay." So I fly to Honolulu on my own dime. I create the company, the documents, the pitch packet, all on my own dime. I'm an actor, by the way; I don't have that much money [laughs], but I get there, he does his speech on Vioxx and back pain, and he asks me to get up and give my speech. So I'm speaking to a group of about 50 doctors, I give my pitch, and I swear to God, I think they thought I was an alien. Because most Taiwanese are doctors or engineers or scientists, something very safe and secure, and to them, me being a filmmaker/actor is out of their comfort zone. But the story is very familiar to them.
At the end, my doctor friend gets up and says, "Are there any questions?" And there was this dead silence. And all I could think was: well, there goes $10,000. At least I got to come to Hawaii... [laughs]
But then one guy raises his hand, and he starts speaking in Mandarin. He says, "We have been waiting for this moment our entire lives. We have wanted someone to tell our story. We couldn't do it, because we don't have the capability, the culture, the language. Someone is willing to tell our story. I don't care what you put down, but I'm putting down $5,000 right now."
And I remember thinking, how did he know that $5,000 was the minimum investment in the movie? Because I didn't tell him that. [laughs] But he threw that number out, and I walked out of that room that day with 10 grand in my pocket. And that was the beginning of a long, two-year process of raising money through the Taiwanese community.
APA: What kind of reactions have you been getting, and do they differ -- from the first generation Taiwanese Americans, to the second generation, to the Americans who may have only come to see the movie for James Van Der Beek?
Will: Someone from the San Jose Mercury News who has been interviewing a number of first generation investors, said his feeling from it is that for a lot of them, it's a therapeutic experience. It's a certain healing, because their story has never really been told and never been understood.
For the second generation, I think a lot of them, like myself, are people who are picking up the banner. I'm doing a 20-city college tour, and the college kids are very excited. Because it's a movie! It's Hollywood! I remember telling my investors, "Don't worry -- your kid will make sure people go see this movie."
But what's particularly interesting is the mainstream American, because most of them -- like you said -- the only thing they might know about the film is that it's a thriller and James Van Der Beek is in it. What's fascinating has been their reaction, because universally, the question is: did this really happen? It's a shock to the system, especially to the people who believe they are educated [about international affairs]. In this country, they don't teach you much in terms of World History, so most Americans don't even know what Taiwan is. So I think they see this as a Hotel Rwanda, a Last King of Scotland, a Killing Fields, a Quiet American -- a way to enter into this world and start to learn.
APA: How come you guys shot the film in Thailand?
Will: Taiwan has developed so much since 1983, that it doesn't look like it did back then. So it was easier to take parts of Bangkok and make it look like Taiwan used to. The second reason is budgetary, because of the exchange rate and the fact we were told that [if we shot in Taiwan], we'd have to import equipment from either China, Hong Kong, or Australia, and that would of doubled or tripled our cost right there.
The third reason is political. It's a controversial subject, and there was a change in administration, literally as we were shooting. There was an election in March of 2008; we filmed from April to June, and there was a change of administration in May.
APA: The KMT regained power as you guys were filming. How did that affect your shoot?
Will: It didn't' affect us at all because we shot in Thailand. But if we had shot in Taiwan, it may have been a different story.
APA: Are you guys already expecting to be banned in China?
Tzi: Will and I had this conversation many times already, and I really think that China wouldn't terribly object to this film. It doesn't really put the KMT in such good light. I think China would be very happy about that. [laughs]
Will: In the film festivals we have shown it in, there have been mainland Chinese who have come, and there are two things they say. They say: first of all, we're not taught this history. They're just told that the KMT left for Taiwan, but they don't know what happened afterward. Second of all, they're also taught that the KMT was corrupt. That's why they got kicked off! [laughs]
The one thing they say might be controversial in China is actually the last line of the movie. In the epilogue, we have a script that says: Today, China has over a thousand missiles pointed at Taiwan if it declares independence. But that's true. That's just a fact. China doesn't deny that. The film itself never says anything about the Communists or the mainland Chinese -- other than the ones that came over to Taiwan.
For more information on Formosa Betrayed, go to their official website here.