Monday, March 01, 2010

Formosa Betrayed

Let's hear it for clever niche marketing!

I'm dead serious here. I went to Formosa Betrayed figuring that it showing up at AMC Boston Common despite the lack of me having ever heard of it was something akin to The Echelon Conspiracy last year, with distributors managing to get lucky, scoring more screens than expected between Oscar nominees and dumping ground films wearing out their welcome and worthwhile releases starting up again in March.

Instead, it turned out to be a pretty canny piece of marketing: One of the most important and lamentable events in this history of modern Taiwan took place on 28 February 1947, so the release date is relevant. The Boston Common theater is also the closest in the city to Chinatown (by just a hair over Stuart Street), so the distributor managed to get their small film in front of the people in Boston who would be most interested, when they'd be the most interested. I suspect its national release followed the same pattern: I'd be shocked if its bookings in New York, San Francisco, etc., weren't in the theaters most accessible to the local Taiwanese population.

I kind of love this. I'm certainly not in that target audience, but I got to see it anyway (though I'd be happier about that if it were a better movie). Hollywood is good at a one-size-fits-all marketing push, but this sort of local, focused marketing can get some butts in seats, and give a few extra options for adventurous moviegoers.

Formosa Betrayed

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 February 2010 at AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run)

To a certain extent, you have to wonder who Formosa Betrayed is made for. The audience with whom I saw it was predominately Asian-American, and the canny marketers made sure to release it on a weekend when the subject matter would be on their minds. But it's clearly intended, in large part, as a means of educating us non-Taiwanese, and It's not exactly good enough to get folks into the theaters.

(I don't count. I see everything, and am especially drawn to things that show up in a multiplex despite having zero prior promotion.)

Chicago, 1983. College professor Henry Wen (Joseph Foronda) has been murdered, and upon discovering that that the crime has the characteristics of a gang from the victim's native Taiwan (aka the Republic of China), Detective Lisa Gilbert (Leslie Hope) calls the FBI for assistance. She's sent Special Agents Jake Kelly (James Van Der Beek) and Tom Braxton (John Heard), and though they soon identify the assassins, they escape back home to Taiwan. Jake follows, where he meets Susan Kane (Wendy Crewson), an American liaison (since Nixon recognized Communist China, the U.S. doesn't have an ambassador); Kuo (Tzi Ma), her R.O.C. opposite number; General Tse (Kenneth Tsang), a high-ranking security official; and Detective Lee (Adam Wang), who is actually in charge of the case, with Kelly only authorized to observe when he sees fit. Still, the professor's wife gave him a lead of his own to follow up, which brings him to Ming (Will Tiao), who claims that Wen was assassinated for his plans to publish a book speaking out against the repressive R.O.C. government.

Having the story told from Kelly's perspective has some pluses and minuses. The thing that the filmmakers most want us to come away with is a sense of how Chang Kai-shek and his mainland refugees repressed the native Taiwanese, from the February 28th purges to forcing the population to speak Mandarin rather than their own language. That's a story about Taiwan and its people, but it is kept somewhat at arm's length by having the main character be a white American. Yes, Kelly gives the filmmakers a chance to inform the audience directly; still, there's something vaguely frustrating about needing a device like this, whether because audiences won't see a movie with a Taiwanese cast or because producers assume they won't.

It doesn't help that Kelly is so transparently just a device to serve as a buffer between us and the actual story. It wouldn't be so bad if he had a discernible personality - Van Der Beek plays him as genial and honest, but not really individual - but for much of the movie, he doesn't really do anything. People pass him notes, he follows their directions, and once there, people tell him things. He also provides us with very earnest narration, just in case we weren't sure whether or not he was shocked and appalled. The movie stretches to get to feature-length around his story, killing time by having Kelly call back home to repeat things we already know, and jumping back and forth in time a bit so as to show a couple scenes twice and spread the action out a little.

Van Der Beek isn't awful, mind, just extremely generic. He's better than John Heard as his partner, for instance, who is kind of a lazy stereotype. Most of the other characters are at least well-acted; Tzi Ma, Kenneth Tsang, and Adam Wang fill their roles very well, never hitting any false notes. There's just not much to them. There's hints of a little more to other characters; Wendy Crewson handles her character's twin impulses to help and protect U.S. interests nicely, for instance. Leslie Hope's character isn't much more well-defined than Kelly, but there's a certain tension and determination to her that makes me wish she were the one to go to Taiwan. And then there's Will Tiao, who in addition to playing Ming produced and co-wrote the original story. Ideally, Ming would be the main character, but even while relegated to supporting work, Tiao does a fine job of making us understand what the stakes are for everyday Taiwanese life without just being a guy who gives lectures.

It's a shame that things don't come together a little better; there is a lot of good information presented that many Americans might not be aware of, and director Adam Kane and the six credited writers do a nice job of starting the action as a procedural and smoothly moving things into something on a larger scale. The action is staged well, and is not drawn out when that would be inappropriate. The story doesn't ever rely on otherwise intelligent people doing something stupid.

I don't regret seeing Formosa Betrayed, even if I think it might have been more involving with a Taiwanese cast or informative as a documentary. The reality, however, is that neither of those would likely have gotten even the tiny (but well-timed) release that this film got in theaters and will get on video.

Also at eFilmCritic

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