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One of the advantages of being unemployed is that I can waltz down to Boston Common on a weekday morning, watch a movie, and have the theater all to myself. So it was when I went to see Formosa Betrayed today. I was prepared for something less than perfect, having heard about the film before it came out and having read various reviews afterwards. But I did not expect to be severely disappointed.

The movie is a thriller about a murder of a Taiwanese professor near Chicago and an FBI agent, Jake Kelly, who travels to Taiwan to assist in the investigation. Agent Kelly witnesses atrocities committed under martial law (this all happens in the early 80s), and in following leads provided by the widow, he gets into trouble for meeting with critics of the government, who not-so-subtly bludgeon^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hhit us over the head with a history of post-WWII Taiwan.

It is quite unfortunate (and frustrating) that the movie was not made better, because this is a history that desperately needs to be told. Instead the movie strings together a narrative based on actual historical events and puts them in a package that is promising but ends up falling short. In true Hollywood form, the bad guys are obviously bad, the good guys are obviously good, and the story itself is a bit shaky. The film was shot in Thailand and makes the setting look decades older than it should. And watching the actors stumble over Mandarin and Taiwanese made me cringe a little. But more than all this, the insertion of a pro-independence epilogue makes the film feel more like a political statement than historical fiction.

(The simplified Chinese on a banner and the use of Arial on a sign were kind of problematic, but probably only for me :-) )

If you want a cheap two-hour introduction to a little bit of Taiwanese history without much effort, and are willing to suspend disbelief and follow Agent Kelly’s vain attempt to uncover vast government conspiracies, this is the movie for you. Or you can do a little deep-diving by doing some outside reading:

There is an eponymous (non-fiction) book by George H. Kerr about one of the main historical events covered in the film, the "228 Incident" (or "February Incident"). In it the former U.S. vice consul in Taiwan gives some background of the island around the end of World War II and provides a first-person account and stories from various other Americans there at the time. The book is no longer in print and costs $100 on Amazon, but its text is apparently available online courtesy of the publisher.

Another book, Fires of the Dragon by David Kaplan, covers the assassination of Professor Henry Liu (which I assume is the basis for the movie). It has apparently gotten good reviews from Amazon (all of two reviewers) and Foreign Affairs.

Alternatively you can visit Taiwan’s national archives (!) and see some Flash-ridden presentations about the 228 Incident and the Formosa Incident (the latter referenced by the protest in Kaohsiung in the movie).

Date: 2010-03-04 10:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] gigglefest.livejournal.com
Oh, the simplified Chinese would be a problem for me too. :)

Date: 2010-03-05 06:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] perbac.livejournal.com
Awww man, I'm sorry to hear the movie is not very good as a movie (and too pro-independence). I was looking forward to taking people to see it so they could, I dunno, absorb some of my culture or something.

Date: 2010-03-05 06:44 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] perbac.livejournal.com
My parents saw it last weekend (and said that although they'd gone by themselves, they looked around the theatre afterward and recognized a lot of faces in the local Taiwanese-American community); my mom said that because she'd left Taiwan in the late 70s, there were actually a few events that she hadn't heard about. Curious if you've compared notes with your parents. :)

Lecture mode - sigh. Well, oh well. I'll still watch it and see how it goes. (Though, it doesn't come to Seattle until April.)

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