Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
"Formosa Betrayed" is a political thriller with an agenda. It argues that Formosa, now known as Taiwan, has been the pawn of great powers for centuries. Occupied by Japan in the pre-World War II years, it was claimed by the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek after the war, and his army retreated there after its defeat by Red China. Although Americans have long been schooled that Chiang flew the banner of freedom, the film says he seized property, killed thousands of native Formosans, wiped out the leadership class and established a dictatorship.
This history is related to an FBI agent named Kelly (James Van Der Beek), who has been sent to Taiwan to act as "liaison" in the search for the murderer of a prominent Taiwanese professor in Lake Forest, Ill. Why Kelly -- who speaks no Chinese and scarcely knows that Taiwan was once called Formosa? Perhaps precisely because of his ignorance. In the Cold War years, neither Washington nor Taipei want a scandal. The story takes place in 1983, but that hasn't changed.
Kelly flies in, is greeted by an American official named Susan Kane (Wendy Crewson) and whisked off to a lavish welcome party while his key witness is being murdered. Secretly contacted by friends of the dead Lake Forest professor, he realizes their lives, and his, are in danger from the police state. At this point, the movie takes hold. Earlier, it seemed to linger overmuch on past history, including even newsreel footage from World War II and Chiang meeting Roosevelt and Churchill.
We realize, somewhat to our surprise, that "Formosa Betrayed" is a thriller that's actually about something. Most thrillers are about the good guy trying to outshoot and outrun the bad guys, and their settings are incidental. This one has a bone to chew. One of the script writers is Will Tiao, who also plays Ming, the film's Taiwanese hero, an underground activist committed to regaining control of the island for its original Formosans.