City Paper is not for tourists
Formosa Betrayed deals with the Cold War, specifically how Chiang Kai-shek’s oppressive rule of Taiwan continued to have bloody ramifications both there and internationally as late as 1983, when the story takes place. (End notes, however, acknowledge that all is still not well on the island.) Unlike Vincere, though, here it helps to know your history. Directed by first-timer Adam Kane and written by four screenwriters based on a story by producer/costar Will Tiao, the film strains to elicit outrage with its Sturm und Drang but instead comes across as a messy bore.
James Van Der Beek stars as Jake Kelly, an FBI agent who goes a bit rogue when he’s sent to Taiwan to investigate the murder of a Chicago professor. It’s difficult enough to accept the erstwhile (and largely off-the-radar) Dawson as a crack investigator. But then there’s the opening credits’ slow, melodramatic score, and an early scene in which Kelly, escorting a source in an airport, is surrounded by Taiwanese police and whisked away by an American liaison, Susan Kane (Wendy Crewson), before he gets shot. “You have no authority here!” she tells Kelly. “This is Taiwan!” The scene so clearly wants to be a screechy version of “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown” that, in fact, the only appropriate response is laughter.
Why Formosa Betrayed didn’t go straight to DVD is a mystery of Rosebud proportions. If you do want to take it seriously, though, you’d better pay attention. The professor’s widow says he was being watched before he was killed, possibly because of mob ties. But Kelly doesn’t buy it. She tells him to get in touch with a friend of theirs when he gets to Taiwan, which leads to a cryptic nonmeeting at a cafe where Kelly then is aided by waiter/activist Ming (Tiao, a terrible actor). As Kelly falls farther down the rabbit hole, largely ignoring Kane’s advice that socializing first will open doors later, it becomes clear that the government does not want him sniffing around and will murder his suspects themselves to get him to go away and/or cover their own asses. (Those suspects, by the way? Soooo easy to find.)
The story ends up involving drugs, money laundering, lots of murder, and top-shelf corruption—and rarely has such dirt seemed so dull. Van Der Beek wisely decides to underplay his role, though he could have varied his Look of Concern every once in a while. When Kelly gets back to home base and his boss squawks, “If we wanted Eliot Ness, we would have sent Eliot Ness!” you can’t help wishing you were watching The Untouchables instead.