Formosa Betrayed coming to theaters in Taiwan


On August 6, the 2009 thriller Formosa Betrayed will be seen for the first time in Taiwan, about two weeks after it becomes available here on DVD. You should all see it, and remember that Chiang Kai Shek had nearly as much blood on his hands as Mao, and not very long ago Taiwan was a brutal police state capable of unspeakable crimes against humanity.

I watched the movie last night. It stars Dawson Creek’s James Van Der Beek, and despite its obviously low budget – it lacks the slick veneer of a Hollywood blockbuster, and has none of the dazzling effects of, say Silence of the Lambs – it still sizzles.

Allow me to snip Wikipedia’s plot summary:

Inspired by two actual events, one surrounding the death of Professor Chen Wen-Chen (陳文成) of Carnegie Mellon University in 1981, and the other the 1984 assassination of journalist Henry Liu in California, Formosa Betrayed is the story of FBI Agent Jake Kelly’s (James Van Der Beek) investigation of the murder of Henry Wen (Joseph Forunda), a Taiwanese professor in Chicago. With the help of his partner Tom Braxton (John Heard) and a sharp Chicago police detective (Leslie Hope), Agent Kelly discovers that the murderers have fled to Taipei, capital of the Republic of China.

Agent Kelly is sent overseas to assist the Republic of China government’s search for the killers. Initially guided by an American diplomat (Wendy Crewson) and a KMT official (Tzi Ma), he soon realizes that not only is he an unwelcome guest in a foreign land, but that something more treacherous is happening beneath the surface.

With the help of Ming (Will Tiao), a Taiwanese activist, Agent Kelly discovers the unsettling truth about the island, once described as “Ilha Formosa” (“beautiful island”) by the Portuguese, leading to dangerous and painful consequences. Agent Kelly finds himself on a collision course with the U.S. State Department, the Chinese Mafia, and ultimately the highest levels of the Kuomintang, where this FBI agent discovers how a complex web of politics, identity, and power affects the lives and destinies of all the citizens.

I had to smile when, early on in the film, Agent Kelly checks into a Taiwan hotel and is handed the keys to Room No. 228. It’s a shame that just about no one knows what 228 is, about how on that day, February 28, 1947, an incident took place that would unleash the full savagery of the Chiang Kai Shek regime, resulting in the wanton slaughter of as many as 30,000 innocent Taiwanese citizens. It was a tragedy that makes Tiananmen look trivial. It is shocking that it remains unknown. But to Taiwan’s credit, it is a great weight on the nation’s conscience, and everyone there knows about it. It took decades before the government opened up about it, but now there is an Er Er Ba park and museum with photos of the victims and all the sordid details, and it is a source of shame and grief to this day. This is heartening, though of course it doesn’t excuse or lessen the crimes committed by Chiang’s willing executioners.

Formosa Betrayed is based on an all too true story, and your blood pressure has no choice but to rise as you see how the US State Department in effect allowed the Taiwanese government in 1981 to murder a US citizen critical of its regime, and to then cover it up by murdering its own assassins. Along the way, those trying to help bring the truth to light are murdered, and one of them, in the film’s most disturbing scene, is tortured with a blowtorch.

There is a propaganda element to this movie, which is clearly an advocate for Taiwanese independence. It makes the point that Taiwan has been exploited for centuries, ruled by the Japanese and then by Chiang (at first welcomed as a hero), and that the fate of the island was then put into jeopardy by the US’s recognition of the PRC. Shouldn’t this country, the film shouts at you, be allowed to be independent?

That, of course, is a thorny question and there’s no way for me to discuss it without feeling depressed, because I sadly do not believe it’s going to happen.

But no matter what our viewpoint on that subject, you should know the Taiwan that has somehow been airbrushed from modern memory. You should know with what casualness and cruelty Chiang’s army murdered the people of Taiwan. And you should know that, once again, in the name of “pragmatism” the US in 1981 allowed them to get away with murder. It’s a taut, well-made movie that will leave you furious. Van Der Beek is actually quite excellent as the hero who will not compromise in the name of realpolitik, and the man who fought to make this film possible, Will Tiao, is absolutely superb as the poor fellow who tries to help Agent Kelly find the assassins, and who ends up facing a gleefully sadistic torture crew. He is also the film’s writer and producer.

If you’re in Taiwan, please spread the word that the film is coming and must be seen. If you’re not in Taiwan, rent the DVD and see a side of Taiwan we all want to forget.

Today, Taiwan is simply my favorite country on earth, civilized, urbane, wonderful in just about every way (politics aside). It is so hard to believe that only three decades ago people advocating independence were being shot openly on the streets. You can’t know contemporary Taiwan if you don’t know the Taiwan of the nost-so-distant past.

The Discussion: 42 Comments

Thanks Richard for the review, I will find and rent sounds amazing.
I always call Taiwan sort of a free China.

July 6, 2010 @ 2:41 pm | Comment

Van Der Beek is a surprisingly decent actor — I saw him on a short-lived (and really not bad) US TV series called MERCY.

I do know a little bit about the “White Terror” that Chiang Kai Shek unleashed on Taiwan — when you look at the number of dead in relation to the population of Taiwan, it’s really staggering, as horrific as any crime committed by Mao, and doubly tragic that it was overlooked (and condoned) in the US in the name of political expediency.

July 6, 2010 @ 3:15 pm | Comment

“Chiang Kai Shek had nearly as much blood on his hands as Mao”. Really? I’d like to see some citations of that. I didn’t think he was nearly as good at killing people as Mao.

July 6, 2010 @ 3:52 pm | Comment

Hanmeg, it depends on whether you count the dead of the Great Leap Forward as “murdered.” That’s a tough call. In terms of actual murders ordered by the state, Chiang is right up there.

July 6, 2010 @ 10:23 pm | Comment

Chiang was a relatively successful military leader, but a poor executive or administrator who tried to rule the general populace as a general. Mao was almost pure evil: a coward, a megalomaniac and someone who didn’t give a single thought to developing China or bettering the lives of Chinese people. I’m not saying that Chiang was any better or worse, but Mao was almost in his own class as a despicable form of low life. I’m disgusted every time I have to see his fat head on RMB notes or the walls of businesses and public places.

July 7, 2010 @ 12:29 am | Comment

Not much sense comparing them. Each had the blood of many millions of Chinese on their hands. Once you’re into numbers that high it’s hard to say who was worse.

July 7, 2010 @ 12:52 am | Comment

Ten Myths Regarding a Mainland Attack against the Taiwan

This post wants to discuss some common “myth” about China attacking Taiwan. Of course it does not mean that China will attack Taiwan for sure, in fact, it’s entirely possible that there could be a peaceful reunification within the next 15 years.

First Myth: “If China wants to attack Taiwan, it must be sure that it can win, otherwise it should not attack Taiwan”.

In fact, it’s totally possible that China may lose to Taiwan, and may lose very shamefully. But winning and losing are both common in warfare, even if you lose, you should continue to fight. When the North fought the South in America’s Civil War, the North kept losing in the beginning, but Lincoln did not care and continued the war, and eventually the North won. In China’s Qing Dynasty, they lost the Opium War largely because they chose to give up when they lost some battles, instead of keep fighting and keep fighting until the other side gets tired. Even if the Western powers sunk every single one of China’s ships, it still should not surrender and sign a treaty, it should keep fighting with. As long as you refuse to surrender, then even if you lose all your battles, the other side will eventually have no choice but to give up.

Therefore, China should not avoid fighting Taiwan simply because it may lose. In fact, fighting a war with Taiwan is simply a way to accumulate real battle experiences for the Chinese army, and only when you have real battle experiences can you improve yourself. So even if China’s fleets and airplanes were all destroyed by the Taiwanese military, it should keep sending more fleets and more airplanes and keep making more fleets and more airplanes. I remember that there’s a “100-year-war” between England and France in ancient times, well I very much like the concept of “100-year-war”, and perhaps China should make it a “200-year-war” with Taiwan. That is, for the next 200 years, China should stay in military mode, keep making new airplanes, new ships, new missiles, and ask the entire Chinese population to become an army and encourage people to have 5 or 6 babies, so that every single day there’ll be waves and waves of attacks on Taiwan for 200 years, until Taiwan cannot take it anymore.

Second Myth: A War Will Make China’s Economy Fall Behind 20 Years.

How do we check if a country is “advanced” or “behind”? Well, all you need to look at is what “things” can this country make? Can it only make radios? Or can it make TV’s as well? Can it only make regular TV’s, or can it make “HDTV”‘s. Can it only make car engines, or can it make airplane engines as well? Can it make mainframe computers, or can it make supercomputers as well? The more “advanced stuff” a country can make, the more “advanced” that country is.

Now you may say “Math, you are wrong!, we should look at GDP per capita!”. Well, I thinkn GDP is totally meaningless. Some country has high GDP per capita because it has natural resources, like the Oil-rich nations in Middle East, can you say that those nations are “advanced”? I certainly do not think so.

The only measure for a nation’s advancedness is the technological productive force of that nation. If a nation can extract 300 tons of wheat from a square kilmeter of land, and another nation can extract 1000 tons from the same land, then the second nation is more advanced. Even if the second nation is bombed into ruins, but as long as it has that technological productive capability, it can quickly recover, and still be considered a modern nation. When WW2 ended, Germany and Japan and China are all in ruins. But those ruins are different. Even though Germany and Japan were in ruins, they had the knowledge of building advanced ships and weaponry and industrial infrastructure, so they quickly rose from the ruins and are still first-class nations today. But China back then could not even build a nail properly, not to mention any advanced stuff. So China was unable to catch up as quickly, and is still considered a “developing nation” today. So can you say that WW2 made Germany and Japan fall behind 20 years? Of course you cannot.

Third Myth: “War will cause deaths, and deaths are bad”

We know that if you want to achieve things, you need to make sacrifices, and deaths are common occurrences. The reason we think that deaths are bad is a result of Western thoughts. Westerners have difficulties breeding massively, and their populations are almost “shrinking”, so of course one dead person means one less person for them. But Asians and Blacks and Muslims can breed as massively as pigs, and population shrinking is not a concern. If you have 100 children every day, do you care if you lose a few, of course you do not. And sometimes there’s even population explosion, so perhaps sometimes famine and wars are good ways to prevent population explosions.

Chinese, especially, have large breeding powers, so death is not too big a deal.

If you look at ancient Civilizations, most of them have died, or almost died off. And the Chinese civilization is also slowly declining in the last hundreds of years. Why is that? Well, I think that as any civilization develops to a certain degree, there’ll exist a phenomenon of “gentleness and kindness”, and excessive kindness and gentleness will only cause that civilization be devoured by another less advanced civilization. In fact, almost all ancient civilizations died at the hands of a more ferocious and less developed civilization. When Christopher Columbus was writing his diary about Native Indians, he wrote “They were the most kind and gentle people on earth, and that is the reason they were so easily defeated.”

So if China wants to rise, it must not emphasize gentleness and kindness too much, but should instead always calculate its own interests, and to advance its interests, massive deaths is not a big deal at all.

Now you may ask, “What if everyone in China dies”? That of course is impossible. In fact, it’s more likely that wars may make everyone in the West die, because Caucasians’ breeding powers are very limited compared to the Chinese. Even if USA drops a nuclear bomb on China, China will still have many survivors. Even if they don’t survive, there’ll be Chinese descent from neighboring countries like Korea, Vietnam, Laos, etc, and those people will continue the civilization. Now, you may ask again, “What about Nuclear Winters!”. Well, I do not believe in Nuclear Winters, I think it is a strategic scare tactic by Americans. Well even if the nuclear winter theory is true, then the worst that can happen is that 99% of the people on earth will die, and 1% will survive. Given the breeding powers and population of Chinese on this earth, that 1% will contain many Chinese people, so they can start the human civilization on earth once again. It is like when I’m playing chess and I feel that I’m losing, I would often violently flip the whole board onto the ground, and force the opponent to start over, and maybe in the new game, I’ll win. If I’m losing again in the new game, I’ll flip the board again and wipe every piece to the ground again, and force him to start over the game again…

July 7, 2010 @ 7:33 am | Comment

Richard, you say “Not much sense comparing them”, even though you were the one to compare them when you said, “Chiang Kai Shek had nearly as much blood on his hands as Mao”. Moreover, you spoke of “blood on his hands”, not murder. It sounds as if you believe the CCP’s dismissal of the Great Leap Forward as due to bad weather and lack of Soviet support.

July 7, 2010 @ 7:59 am | Comment

You misunderstood; I’m saying there’s not much sense comparing them in terms of measuring which one is worse than the other. Both were dreadful and both were leaders of China who inflicted vast sufferings on their own people. So yes, it’s impossible not to compare them. But to compare them along the lines of which was more evil is a fruitless exercise, like some have done with Hitler and Stalin. Evil is evil, some kinds of evil are more evil than others. But once you get into the tens of millions of murdered victims it’s pointless to say which murderer was worse than the other. They are all at the very pinnacle of the Evil-o-Meter. I mean, Pol Pot only had one or two million lives on his hands, but I put him right up there with Mao and Chiang and Hitler.

July 7, 2010 @ 9:39 am | Comment

Math: As long as you refuse to surrender, then even if you lose all your battles, the other side will eventually have no choice but to give up.

Precisely Hitler’s strategy after his major defeats at Stalingrad and outside of Moscow. And as we all know, he persevered and eventually France, England and the US folded and agreed to an unconditional surrender to the Nazis. Nothing like sticking to your guns no matter how hopeless the outlook.

The reason we think that deaths are bad is a result of Western thoughts. Westerners have difficulties breeding massively, and their populations are almost “shrinking”, so of course one dead person means one less person for them.

Your “China doesn’t care much about death because they breed like bunnies” argument is, in all seriousness, exactly what Mao said when he said it wouldn’t matter much if hostilities with Stalin became so acute it might lead to a nuclear assault on China. “So what? – We have plenty more Chinese citizens where the incinerated ones came from. We can repopulate those cities in no time.”

And about death “not being bad,” ask the victims of the Nanjing Massacre if they thought “deaths are bad.” If not, the the Nanjing Massacre was no big deal, right? Hey, according to your worldview, China can repopulate a thousand Nanjings, so bring it on, invaders!

This is one of your sickest and funniest posts to date. Congratulations.

July 7, 2010 @ 9:51 am | Comment

I particularly like this beautiful display of petulance

“It is like when I’m playing chess and I feel that I’m losing, I would often violently flip the whole board onto the ground, and force the opponent to start over, and maybe in the new game, I’ll win. If I’m losing again in the new game, I’ll flip the board again and wipe every piece to the ground again, and force him to start over the game again…”

July 7, 2010 @ 11:33 am | Comment

It’s Math. What do you expect? And I have friends who actually think Math is an intelligent, responsible commenter.

July 7, 2010 @ 11:57 am | Comment

Seems to me Meth would be a more appropriate name….

July 7, 2010 @ 12:31 pm | Comment

Trying (with no great success) to think of a funny play on words along the lines of, “You do the Math.”

July 7, 2010 @ 12:44 pm | Comment

You can’t begin to parody Math. He’s in a class of his own.

July 7, 2010 @ 3:50 pm | Comment

If I may paraphrase Japer Carrott
“Is he really that stupid or is he just acting? Surely no one could be that stupid, so he must be acting, and if he’s acting, he’s a bloody good actor, and what’s a bloody good actor doing on The Peking Duck?”

Orginal phrase from here

July 7, 2010 @ 5:12 pm | Comment

As Jasper Carrott would have said…
“”Is he really that stupid or is he just acting? Surely no one could be that stupid, so he must be acting, and if hes acting, hes a bloody good actor, and whats a bloody good actor doing on The Peking Duck?””

I love Jasper Carrott. Quote from here…

July 7, 2010 @ 5:31 pm | Comment

Math has his own crazy theories, I have my own.

The CCP should teach at schools how grateful chinese people should be of the intervention of foreign powers that ended with the collapse of the Manchu occupation of China.

I wonder what could have happened if the last dynasty were local chinese.

July 7, 2010 @ 8:28 pm | Comment

Great review Richard. I hope to be interviewing Will Tiao soon.


July 7, 2010 @ 9:57 pm | Comment

Re: Chiang v. Mao – there’s nothing good to say about either of them, one was more corrupt, the other was more maniacal, that’s about it.

“Today, Taiwan is simply my favourite country on earth”

Couldn’t agree more. It has most of the things I liked about the mainland without almost all the things I disliked, plus a whole lot more. I intend to get back there just as soon as I can.

July 7, 2010 @ 10:28 pm | Comment

Sorry for the double post – didn’t see the first so assumed I’d forgotten to press the submit button – small kids do that to your concentration powers…

July 8, 2010 @ 4:59 am | Comment

I need to get over to Taiwan some time. I’ve known a fair number of people to go over there but it’s never been convenient to meet up.

I doubt this will be showing in UK cinemas, but might be able to pick it up on DVD somewhere. Thanks for the helpful review.

July 8, 2010 @ 6:17 am | Comment

I haven’t seen this movie yet, but something bothers me.

In this type of movies, the central character is always a white man (occasionally a white woman). Look at the picture. The tall white guy is in the middle surrounded by short local people. The camera focuses on the Caucasian, with a narrow depth of field setting, blurring out the people in the foreground and background.

July 9, 2010 @ 5:16 pm | Comment

Welcome to Hollywood….

July 9, 2010 @ 5:39 pm | Comment

It’s not just Hollywood. I experience this every time I go on the Beijing subway, towering over most of the passengers. The fellow over to the right, in front of the poster, is Will Tiao, by the way.

July 10, 2010 @ 12:11 am | Comment

As much as I am interested actively reading about history in my own spare time, I don’t enjoy being propagandized to. ESPECIALLY if it remotely involves the ongoing Taiwan independence issue, whether for or against, which just makes my brain numb.

And this film, just from the choice of wording in the title, is just one such spinning propaganda. I simply do not trust it to provide an accurate portrayal of the story.

I’ll pass on this film and instead go read up on related background story, preferably from a none traditional-Chinese language sources, where ever they might be.

July 10, 2010 @ 1:42 pm | Comment

Falen, sorry but I don’t buy it. So many great, great movies are “propaganda” – any anti-war movie, nearly any political thriller (think the Bourne series). Oliver Stone’s best movie, Born on the Fourth of July, Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, virtually every Costa Gavras movie, and of course the ultimate propaganda masterpiece, Triumph of the Will, – these are all superb entertainment and anyone can enjoy them, as with Formosa Betrayed (which never even comes close to Triumph in terms of propaganda). I am guessing – and forgive me if I’m wrong – that the one thing that bothers you so much about this movie that you choose to condemn it even before seeing it is its pro-independence message. All I can say is that it’s your loss.

July 10, 2010 @ 10:23 pm | Comment

Unless you have a political axe to grind, it is pointless to debate who is worse: Chiang or Mao? The bigger question is, what is it about Chinese culture and society that managed to produce two of the worst tyrants in modern world history? What conditions allowed these abuses and atrocities to occur so casually, for so long? I haven’t seen this movie yet, and when I do, will view it with a critical eye. However, I can say without reservation that movies like this which touch on such deeply important historical lessons should be welcomed by all, regardless of one’s political stance on Taiwanese independence. If only similar movies on the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen could be made on the mainland…

July 11, 2010 @ 6:39 am | Comment


“If only similar movies on the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen could be made on the mainland…”

They’ll make them in 100 years’ time, and they’ll probably turn these things into the equivalent of the French revolution… Super-mythologized affairs, all glory and who cares about the death count. It was all for the good of China.

July 11, 2010 @ 7:25 pm | Comment

The danger here is that with the eventual passing of the generations with first hand experience, an opportunity will be lost to learn from history and avoid repeating the same mistakes. Chinese society can never be truly harmonious without national soul searching and genuine reconciliation. Sweeping inconvenient truths and historical grievances under the carpet is not a longterm solution.

July 12, 2010 @ 4:35 am | Comment

[…] today, I was playing catch-up with some of “my” blogs, and I came across a recent post at The Peking Duck, which would have been great to incorporate into my own post yesterday. […]

July 12, 2010 @ 6:26 am | Pingback

[…] The film “Formosa Betrayed” sounds like a really good movie I will have to check out. […]

July 12, 2010 @ 7:55 am | Pingback

Sweeping inconvenient truths and historical grievances under the carpet is not a longterm solution.

No, but they’ve been doing it ever since the Great Leap Forward. I go along, sadly, with Poet’s 100-years-from-now theory.

July 12, 2010 @ 11:09 am | Comment

And another assertive step closer to that fateful day:

In an assertive redefinition of its place in the world, China has put the South China Sea into its “core national interest” category of non-negotiable territorial claims – in the same league as Taiwan and Tibet. China has drawn a red line down the map of Asia and defies anyone to cross it.

July 14, 2010 @ 1:32 pm | Comment

In order for the 100-years-from-now theory to work, we would need first hand accounts to be recorded, if not published, now while the witnesses are still alive. My aunt and uncle have made it their mission to record every thing they have witnessed, and I am encouraging my parents to do the same. Not talking about it doesn’t make the emotional scars go away, the baggage just gets passed along to the next generation in subliminal ways.

July 15, 2010 @ 8:07 am | Comment

Hey Richard, I was reading this article and got confused about the dates of Chiang Kai She’s massacre. In the beginning you say that it occured in 1947, but in the end of the article you mention it to be in 1981. Which year did it occur?

July 20, 2010 @ 4:48 am | Comment

Hey Richard, I was reading this article and got confused about the dates of Chiang Kai Shek’s massacre. In the beginning you say that it occured in 1947, but in the end of the article you mention it to be in 1981. Which year did it occur?

July 20, 2010 @ 4:48 am | Comment

Laura, 1981 was the year of the murders depicted in the movie Formosa Betrayed, not of the 228 massacre, a totally separate incident that occurred in 1947.

July 20, 2010 @ 4:53 am | Comment

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August 5, 2010 @ 10:01 am | Pingback

I lived in Taiwan for a couple years in the late 1970s. I came to know many Taiwanese people as well as many people from the mainland during that time. Suffice it to say they really are somewhat different cultures with somewhat different values and priorities.

I never once saw any political demonstrations or truckloads of troops or police running wild in the streets as is depicted in this film. I am aware of tensions between the Taiwanese and the mainlanders, including certain elements of repression by the government, but regular arrests and torture of dissidents? I never once saw any evidence of that nor did any of my Taiwanese friends ever speak of such things happening in real time.

I’m not saying these events didn’t happen, but in my opinion I consider it unlikely that they happened in the manner depicted in this film. Inasmuch as I was physically present there and lived amongst the Taiwanese and this film’s writer/producer apparently never has I’m inclined to side with my own personal experiences. My point is, viewers should recognize that this film does not present what I would call a fair or balanced viewpoint.

September 8, 2010 @ 1:06 pm | Comment

I won’t disagree with that. I read Michael Turton’s excellent critique of the film, and there was obviously a lot of melodrama added. Which isn’t to say there weren’t killings on the street at times. But that certainly wasn’t the norm.

September 8, 2010 @ 1:11 pm | Comment

anyone else disagree with the concept of “Reunification”? Seems to imply that Taiwan was ever part of China? I have not seen anything that suggests that Taiwan was part of China. I did read a news blurb about a year or so ago that I think a PM Aso of Japan ruffled feathers by noting (I am simplifying) that Taiwan is Taiwan and Formosa is Formosa and China is China. I thought that was fair. I have not seen the movie yet, I saw that it was on Showtime but it has not cycled back yet. I’ve been waiting for such a movie. I wish not only American knew of the role our country has played in these affairs, as well as Taiwanese Americans who seem to conflate the KMT’s Liberation of Taiwan (which I don’t understand as we shelled the hell out of the Japanese and asked Shek to receive surrendering Japanese troops and administer the island while we went after the Japanese, it seems we allowed the KMT to take Formosa as a consolation prize for having lost to the PRC over the mainland, but it was not ours to concede and not the KMT’s to take). Keep on your politicians about honoring the taiwan relations act- Pelosi and Feinstein keep trying to argue it away. And no one since Goldwater has done anything to help (Goldwater sued Carter over completing the deal that Nixon started on taking the recognition of Taiwan as China and giving it to the PRC)

end of rant…

September 9, 2010 @ 8:21 am | Comment

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