“It was there that I met Ming, a man who had endured an injustice that would force me to assess my Constitution, my beliefs in the justice system, and the very foundation of our government in the U.S.”Agent Jake Kelly, Formosa Betrayed
Inspired by George Kerr’s 1965 novel under the same name, Formosa Betrayed plunges its viewers into the dangerous world of early-1980s Taiwan. After a brief introduction and monologue, the film begins in the Chiang Kai-shek International Airport, where shots ring out and chaos ensues.
Formosa Betrayed follows the journey of American FBI Agent Jake Kelly (played by James Van Der Beek) as he investigates the murder of Professor Wen, a Taiwanese economics professor in Chicago. The two suspects, members of the Iron Blood Patriots gang, lead Agent Kelly to Taiwan, where American diplomat Susan Kane awaits his arrival. To uncover the truth, the FBI agent must defy orders from both the United States and Taiwanese governments.
The film sheds light on the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)’s violence and addresses America’s complex foreign policy toward Taiwan at the time. While the U.S. maintains a “one-China” policy, refusing to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation, the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 declares that the U.S. will defend the island in the event of an attack by mainland China. In the film, Agent Kelly clashes with the U.S. State Department, the Chinese Mafia, and the higher-ups of the KMT as he unearths a series of international conspiracies.
Inspired by Real Assassinations
Professor Wen’s death parallels the assassinations of Chen Wen-chen and Henry Liu (better known by his pen name, Jiang Nan).
Chen Wen-chen, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, died on July 3, 1981. Despite his concerns about traveling safely to Taiwan, the professor’s mother convinced him to leave America and return to Taiwan for the first time in six years. On July 2, three men from the Taiwan Garrison Command took Chen for an interrogation that lasted over 12 hours. The following morning, his body was found on the National Taiwan University (NTU) campus. Although the Taiwanese government ruled the death as a suicide or accident, evidence pointed toward an assassination by the Garrison Command as a consequence of the professor’s support of Formosa Magazine, which opposed the KMT’s political monopoly. NTU began construction on a “Dr. Chen Wen-chen Incident Memorial Square” near the university’s main library in July 2020. Both the fictional and real professors’ deaths have connections to allegations of overseas “student” spies reporting pro-independence students and faculty in America to the Taiwanese government.
The circumstances of Professor Wen’s death in Formosa Betrayed further resemble Jiang Nan’s murder. Jiang Nan, a Taiwanese journalist killed in 1984, had openly criticized the KMT and published an unauthorized biography of Chiang Ching-kuo (president of the Republic of China) before his assassination. Professor Wen’s mysterious, unpublished exposé of the Taiwanese government is reminiscent of Jiang Nan’s book.
Real Rioting and Crackdown
Similarly, the independence protest in Kaohsiung that Agent Kelly attends with Ming and Professor Huang mirrors the Kaohsiung Incident of December 10, 1979. The Kaohsiung Incident occurred when the government cracked down on demonstrations led by Formosa Magazine that celebrated Human Rights Day and demanded democracy. Widely regarded as a watershed event in Taiwanese history, the Kaohsiung Incident helped to fuel the Taiwan democratization movement. Formosa Betrayed depicts Agent Kelly among the Taiwanese crowd as armed soldiers violently disband the peaceful protest with guns, batons, riot shields, and teargas.
“They create fear by spying on their own people, laundering money, even killing political dissidents.”Ming, Formosa Betrayed
At the end of the 1 hour and 46 minute film, a title screen emphasizes: “Currently there are 23 countries that recognize Taiwan as an independent nation. The U.S. is not one of them.” Now, that number has decreased to 15. Seattle Times critic Jeff Shannon describes the film as a “passionate labor of love that pointedly criticizes the U.S. government’s failure to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation, independent of mainland China.”
Shown through a foreign (American) perspective, Formosa Betrayed also reveals the desperation and danger of Taiwan under martial law. Although Agent Kelly enters Taiwan with almost no knowledge of the island’s past or current situation, he leaves with a passionate opposition to the lack of justice and human rights under KMT rule. As the plot unfolds, the audience joins him on his journey of discovering Taiwanese history. Whether you are Taiwanese American or not, Formosa Betrayed’s insight into Taiwan’s past makes it a worthwhile watch.
“Although the film is set in the 1980s in an era known as the ‘White Terror,’ its underlying theme of human rights and democracy remains relevant today. The film provides a critical analysis of the relationship between the U.S. and Taiwan, as well as current U.S. foreign policy toward this country.”Will Tiao, Producer
Watch Formosa Betrayed online for free at https://youtu.be/RKUqh5xNl8s. The film is rated R for several scenes of violence and torture.
Click here to see one more Taiwanese history reference in Formosa Betrayed (Spoiler).