Will Tiao on 'Formosa Betrayed': ‘I can defend my movie to the T”

Will Tiao at yesterday's Breakfast Club meeting. Photo: Trista di Genova
Will Tiao at yesterday's Breakfast Club meeting. Photo: Trista di Genova

By Trista di Genova
Wild East senior correspondent

At a speaking engagement jointly sponsored by Prof. Jerome Keating’s Breakfast Club and the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club (TFCC) and held at Central News Agency’s headquarters in Taipei Saturday, Will Tiao, the American-born Taiwanese writer/actor/producer of a controversial new independent film, “Formosa Betrayed” parried questions and gamely confronted criticism of the movie.

To a room of about 40 foreign and local journalists, government officials, academics and bloggers, Tiao responded in detail to questions about the movie’s production, critics’ reviews, reaction from audiences here and in the West and his future plans. He was first off asked to recite a 5-minute summary of Taiwan’s history that he’d once perfected as a Congressional staffer, when hand-delivering Congressmen on the Hill with copies of the 1965 book of the same name by US diplomat George H. Kerr. He said the experience helped prepare him for the long, three-year slog of fundraising US$8 million dollars at “booster”-organized events around the U.S. for making the film, when he’d “never even asked his friends for a dime before,” he said. He added that Hollywood was aghast with the number of investors in this film, 300, a strong showing indeed from primarily the Taiwanese expat community in America.

Tiao meets with this Wild East writer, reporters and academics on Saturday morning. Photo: The Wild East
Tiao meets with this Wild East writer, reporters and academics on Saturday morning. Photo: The Wild East
The following are close to verbatim notes on issues and questions raised in the 90-minute visit, after which he met individually with participants, took pictures, then had to leave to attend a screening of the film in Tainan, southern Taiwan that afternoon. Fifty tickets were given to participants gratis Joseph Wu, former MAC chairman (Mainland Affairs Council) and Taiwan’s representative to the US, as “a friend of TFCC.”

Will Tiao’s family, professional rise

“My parents were from Kaohsiung. I was born and raised in Kansas because my father was a Kansas State University (KSU) graduate student, then professor at the university. It’s often called the “Military College of Taiwan independence,” because so many intellectuals went through there. My parents always taught me to say I was Taiwanese, not Chinese. Back then, you were not supposed to call yourself Taiwanese, or you’d be put on a blacklist by the Taiwan government, which my father was for several years.”

“I was involved in politics at an early age,” he continued, “studied on a Fulbright scholarship in the Philippines, worked for the Clinton administration’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs on World Bank issues, and did a Presidential Management Fellowship, which aims to encourage young people to go into public service. I was placed on the Ways and Means Committee, writing on issues such as permanent trade relations with China. Then I was assigned to the US Trade Representative’s team. While in DC, I started acting on the side, just as a hobby at first. I began with a play, which led to a TV show and a movie, and then found myself with two full-time careers. Under Bush, the trade promotion authority changed so that no one negotiated on these votes, because Congress could just go back and amend it. But at that time my acting took off, so I went up to New York and studied with Susan Bathson — Nicole Kidman and Juliette Binoche’s acting coach. Then I found myself working on shows, shooting independent films, and doing a lot of theater.”

The film’s genesis began in 2005, Will said. “I always had an idea of doing a movie about this subject. I began to research this period in Taiwan’s history between 1979 – 85, and picked 1983 as a midpoint. Then I put together a team of Hollywood professionals, producers and writers. I hired a writer to make a treatment and short story of the film — and a lawyer. Also in 2005 I began contacting organizations like FAPA (Formosan Association in Public Affairs) in DC, where I’d interned in ‘83. I got really good at pitching Taiwan history in 5 minutes! Many people wanted to know something about Taiwan at the time, but didn’t know how to go about it.”

“So I put together this insane group of investors, insane to everyone in Hollywood, who is a bit aghast at the number — 300 investors – comprised of more than ¾ Taiwanese-American. I spent 3 years getting independent financing. We just had to go about it individually, individually. I started to treat the movie as my candidate; it had to have a brand, a message, then I had to raise the money. We got investors from all three [political] camps, and had a “Booster” in every area, someone who would help put together these fundraisers all around the US. I spoke at more of these fundraisers than I can count — literally in the hundreds.

Why ‘Formosa Betrayed’ filmed in Thailand, not Taiwan

“When I came to Taiwan a few years ago to scout out locations, it was easy to see that modern-day Taipei and Kaohsiung look nothing like they did in 1983. The second issue is we discovered some things we were not able to overcome, such as a lack of infrastructure for making the film: equipment, cameras, lights; none were available here and we would have had to import them from Hong Kong, Japan or Australia. Then there was the obvious political sensitivity; never has there been a movie about this era in Taiwan, and we were literally prepping for it during the election. In the movie our biggest scene riot in Kaohsiung, inspired by the Meilidao Incident [also known as the Formosa Magazine or Kaohsiung Incident that took place on Dec. 10, 1979), was going to be the most expensive scene in the film. Our concern was if there were any problems, if anyone tried to sabotage the film, we could lose the movie. I’m actually very happy with that scene, although we made do with 1,000, not the actual 10,000 protesters. We got the production value we needed, and changed the event enough to give a sense of atmosphere; after all it’s a feature film not a documentary.”

Addressing film critics’ jibe for filming in Thailand rather than in Taiwan, Will pointed out “’The Hurt Locker’ was not filmed in Iraq for obvious reasons, that people might get killed: ‘Hotel Rwanda’ was shot in S. Africa; ‘Apocalypse Now’ in the Philippines; I could go on and on.”

The Wild East: Did you film any part of the movie in Taiwan? And can you clarify reports you experienced some political pressure here?

“The only parts in ‘Formosa Betrayed’ in Taiwan were all taken from Taiwan documentary films, say in the part when the character in the film talks about the 228 Massacre, or the General’s speech , in that long scene where he puts everything in perspective. For these, we used newsreel and documentary footage taken in Taiwan, everything else was shot in Thailand, Chicago or LA.”

“As I mentioned, we didn’t have the budget to shoot in Taiwan. At that time we’d raised US$5 million, when our goal was US$10 million. We applied at [Taiwan’s] National Development fund (NDF) for investment funds. Normally they invest in high-tech projects, but also do arts and have invested in movies before. We applied in 2008, and initially it was approved. They held a Cabinet-level meeting with representatives from every agency in government, and one staffer. It was supposedly very confidential. I flew to Thailand, excited about the prospect we’d be shooting in Taiwan. Then a staffer at the meeting leaked the news to a KMT legislator, who called United Daily News (UDN), and an article was published about all the confidential proceedings. I was told by the NDF chair that their entire budget was subsequently frozen. So we can’t film in Taiwan.”

How did Will Tiao overcome this obstacle? “Because we have so many investors, the risk was spread out so widely, and this actually allowed us the freedom to do what we wanted to do.”

Trouble finding Taiwanese actors

“We also wanted to have more Taiwanese actors in the film,” he continued, “but a great number of actors are not English proficient. There was a second, political issue, as the actors didn’t want to act in the film and be banned from acting in China — at least that’s what their representatives thought would happen. But in terms of vision for the film, nothing was compromised. Whether you like it or hate it, we take full responsibility for our work.”

Initial successes and distribution of ‘Formosa Betrayed’

“We won a few awards at film festivals, until the distributor Screen Media Films bought the worldwide rights. We kept rights to Taiwan distribution, for which we got Sky Digital Entertainment to handle (Tien ma shincom). Sometimes distributors have had issues taking it on. And we always wish we could have more billboards, but at the end of the day, we are a small independent film, kind of like Taiwan. And so far we’ve found success like that. We’ve seen one of the highest pre-sales records for movie tickets in Taiwan’s history, it’s off the roof! We are seeing a lot of people buying tickets to give to their friends, so they can see the movie.”

A distributor for China contacted me, and I asked “Have you seen the movie?” and he said “I didn’t know it was so political,” and asked if I would agree to the film being edited. I said, “What parts would you edit, starting from frame one?”

The fact that bootleg copies of the film are already downloadable in China proper didn’t seem to faze Will Tiao, although he was slightly bemused. “I was told they usually go after all those, if they have to do anything with Taiwan independence.”

After seeing the film, what do you want moviegoers to take away with them?

“It’s been really, really interesting. Last night, I had a minder whose parents are from Taiwan, and she found it fascinating as we were doing Question & Answer sessions, and said, ‘I’ve learned much more about Taiwan then I ever imagined.’ The film makes you ask a lot of questions, whether you want to or not. For a lot of Taiwanese, many of these issues are not discussed. They’re afraid of inciting an argument, or maybe it’s something your parents never told you about. But the film gets people out of what I call ‘the blue-or-green dialectic.’ We’re talking from an outside perspective about what happened at that time. So we figured, let’s not use terms like KMT, DPP, green party, blue camp, because at the end of the day when Westerners see the situation, they see it as Communists vs. Nationalists, where the Communists are the bad guys, the Nationalists the good guys. Today we feel the dialectic is not green/blue, but Taiwanese/Chinese. But there were reformers in the blue camp, for example a key one, Lee Teng-hui. And if you look at the Taipei Times review, you can see we still get hated by people on both sides!

On the question of identity

“Identity to me is about thought, not about origin. I’m American; to many people I don’t look American, and in Hollywood, I’m always fighting against that. In Hollywood, it’s hard to get a leg-up for more Asians, than any other ethnicity in Hollywood. So I want to make stories that appeal to the full audience, where it doesn’t matter what the nationality is.”

Which role is more satisfying to you, actor, director, producer or writer?

“I always said I was an actor first, because it drove me to leave my job for a career in entertainment. For me acting is a very challenging, and has the right creative method for me. I started out as a cello performance major. You have these kids practicing 5-6 hours a day, and I liked my cello, but I am way too social for that. When I found acting, I felt now I know what it means to feel like you have to do something. But then again, I have discovered certain producing skills I didn’t know I had. After never raising a dime in my life, never asked anyone for a dime, I raised close to 8 million dollars, which must be a certain skill. These days, I’ve been asked to do those things, production and so on, on more on a Hollywood-type scale. But I see myself as an actor first.

Reaction to the film’s Aug. 6th opening in Taiwan so far, and youth response here

“Our sense is it is pretty strong. At places like TaiDa (National Taiwan University, NTU), Taichung’s Donghai University, we’ve been reaching out very aggressively to the under-30 group because this is the group buying tickets. You’d think they feel it’s their parents’ struggle, not theirs, but you’d be surprised. They have a very strong reaction, and since they watch Hollywood movies all the time, this makes the film easy to discuss for them. At the Kaohsiung premiere I was asked, “Are you surprised at this turnout?’ I’m like no, because in February we did a similar college tour in the US, at all the best universities. Distributors asked, “How did you get them to invite you?” I said because the Taiwanese are smart. They always go to the best schools, their parents always drive them to. And the students drove their parents and friends to attend through Facebook, Twitter, and brought their parents along to see the movie. Very similar to here, this has happened throughout the country. More than a million and a half NT worth in tickets have been sold already. Our distributors say they’ve never seen this before, where people are buying tickets for other people.”

‘Formosa Betrayed’ connection to Kerr’s 1965 book of same title

“I’ve read the book and honestly, it was just a working title initially, that was used with directors, writers. Although it’s not just about 2-28 [Feb. 28th Incident in 1947 that sparked the violent suppression of an anti-government uprising and the White Terror era in which an estimated 30,000 intellectuals were killed], it became very symbolic of the film itself. When I was considering using ‘Formosa’ as the title, the crew begged me to use ‘Formosa Betrayed’, because they think it really says what the movie’s about.”

Chinese reaction to the film

“The New York openings were aimed at the foreign and Chinese
audience. The Chinese response in particular was very interesting. Keep in mind most Chinese are not taught this history, whatsoever. From their perspective they [KMT Nationalists) ‘took all our money to Taiwan and that’s why they’re rich,’ that’s the story from my Chinese friends. The idea people in Taiwan experienced all this conflict was very eye-opening for them. There were certain very Chinese reactions. A young woman in her 20s said “We feel very badly that the Nationalists didn’t treat you very well, but I want you to feel that we’re still brothers.” I told her, “It doesn’t make us really feel like brothers when you’re trying to kill us,” and she had no response to that. Another reaction, indirectly I heard this about 2-28: “Only 20,000 were killed? Like 10 million people were killed in the Cultural Revolution, and even that is less than the population of one province.” That is Very Chinese, and I’ve heard this argument before. I’d love for Westerners to hear that, it’s the mentality [in China], the group over the individual. Of course, “We don’t all think that way”, but it is a [widespread] thought.”

The Wild East: Since you don’t mind responding to critical reviews, what is your comeback to the Taipei Times’ assertion that the Mandarin spoken in the movie was “so stilted that it would not be out of place” at NTNU Mandarin Training Center’s speech competition for beginning students?

“This is my dissertation. I can defend this movie to the T. So go for it! To be honest, I don’t really care about the critics. What I care is that you learn something and want to know more. If they say, ‘I hated the movie but at least I learned something about Taiwan’… I won!”
“As for the Mandarin in the film, sometimes [critics] are trying to be more Taiwanese than Taiwanese people, by focusing on the trivial issues. Outside Taiwan they don’t speak about that. Starting from Meryl Streep’s Polish accent in “Sophie’s Choice,” we could go down the list, criticizing foreign actors. I feel we got our message across. We get fan mail every day, not just from Taiwanese, but from all over the world.”

‘Composites’ of historical figures in the film

“Most characters in ‘Formosa Betrayed’ are a composite of 2-3 people. Some of these people are still alive. Because they are a composite, of course they are not exact representations. But the murder of a professor was based on two murders that actually happened, [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].Personally I see the greatest likeness in the character to Prof. Peng Ming-min, who is a family friend. I have known him since I was a kid, and really admired him for what he represented and had to go through. He’s not only supporter of the movie, but an investor.”

Future plans

“I’m starting to put together a film fund, raise financing for a slate of 3 to 5 films and a potential TV show. I’m looking at working on true stories that haven’t been told, often Asian or Asian-American. Some are historical, some not. Usually it’s a comedy, thriller or drama. I like telling a story that hasn’t been told. I’ve been asked, ‘Would you do another movie about Taiwan?’ It all depends about how ‘Formosa Betrayed’ does here. If the film has legs we can finance another one.”

11 thoughts on “Will Tiao on 'Formosa Betrayed': ‘I can defend my movie to the T”

  • May 15, 2011 at 8:57 am

    I enjoyed Formosa Betrayed…all three times I watched it. 🙂

    Because of your background and experiences making Formasa Betrayed, I would be very interested in finding out if you might have an interest to be a co-producer of IN PECTORE (Latin) ?

    After viewing FORMOSA BETRAYED and reading your interview comments, I’m quite certain you will agree with me that there’s a good chance China is soon to become a fascinating venue for a wide variety of future novels / motion pictures. Perhaps the following will pique your interest enough you will want to read my screenplay…IN PECTORE.

    Within the next few years there will undoubtedly be a number of books and motion pictures which will include the element/topic of there being TWO CATHOLIC CHURCHES IN CHINA. My recently completed screenplay IN PECTORE (Latin) is one such. I hope to have the novel version ready for submittal within the next few months.

    The concept of IN PECTORE is not mine; it originated with Patrick, a friend of mine who practices law in Malibu. Several months ago he read one of my screenplays and was sufficiently impressed that he invited me over to ‘hit some tennis balls’ and enjoy a Sunday brunch with him and his wife. Following his invitation, he quickly added: “I’ve had an idea for a novel and screenplay for more than ten years but never felt good about revealing the story to anyone, for fear they might run off with it. Maybe we can talk about my idea for a novel and screenplay over brunch.”

    The following Sunday Pat gave me more or less his logline for the screenplay / novel:

    Meili Wu, a noted surgeon living in Shanghai becomes the first female president of China.
    She later resigns as president to become the first female Catholic Pope.

    Naturally, I thought Pat was crazy and told him: “You’ve got to be kidding.”
    He simply smiled and went on to explain that his uncle had been a Catholic priest serving in China before World War II and returned there immediately following the war. With Mao Zedong’s rise to power came the expulsion of all foreign missionaries and Catholic priests. Millions of Catholics in China were forced to go underground. It is a well documented fact that in 1957 China established a government sanctioned Catholic Church, complete with cardinals and bishops…but with no allegiance to Rome; no tithes were to leave China. In contrast, at every opportunity the underground Catholic Church smuggles its tithes to the Vatican and owes all allegiance to the Pope in Rome.
    Even though I poked fun at Pat’s premise of a female Chinese president resigning to become a female Catholic pope, I thought I should at least hear his ideas on how the entire story might evolve. Pat explained: “I really don’t have any suggestions as to the details of the story…you come up with them, write a screenplay as good as you did for THE TESTAMENT and we’ll split 50-50…..Deal?”
    I thought about it for a few days and finally agreed: I would enjoy the challenge. I had been to Hong Kong and the Mainland a few times and I had been personally associated on different occasions with China’s top aerospace rocket engineers. So making one of the principle characters in the story China’s top rocket engineer and uncle of the main female character was relatively easy and seemed to fit nicely.
    I had other experiences that helped me decipher events that were going on during the period covered in the screenplay story—1963-2018… In addition to events in China, there are key scenes that take place in India. Living in India for three years provided me with first hand knowledge of the two locales in India used in the story and the characters I incorporated into the film story.
    It also helped knowing on a personal basis some of the world’s most prominent Earth satellite experts, who I consulted with on the Earth Satellite Station project at Ghaziabad, India—UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) 1980-1983. The portion of the film story that takes place in India contributed greatly to bringing even more reality—actual historical events—into the tale. The turning point for MEILI WU – the leading lady – takes place in Agra, India, site of the famed Taj Mahal. Moonlit romantic scenes followed by her lover ultimately jilting her while in Agra, sets the young sixteen year old Chinese girl on a new path of learning how to manipulate men to achieve her goals whatever they might be. ( If you think Catherine the Great used men to achieve her ambitious goals, you haven’t seen anything until you read what Meili achieves as the heroine of IN PECTORE. )
    I don’t pretend to be great historian, but for the purposes of writing IN PECTORE, it didn’t hurt that I was an undergraduate History major and had some knowledge of world events over the past 40-50 years. College degrees hardly compare with real world experiences, but at least they can help to develop an inquiring mind that might more quickly bring all of the pieces together to make the story of IN PECTORE perfectly plausible. Pat was amazed and pleased by the way his original premise took on a life of its own, complete with fascinating characters in China, India as well as in the U.S.
    Of course, the keystone to the entire probability factor of a woman becoming the pope is supported by the most incredible bit of information I have come across in decades—IN PECTORE. Popes, have indeed, ordained lay members as priests, bishops and even cardinals—IN PECTORE. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_pectore

    Continued successes,

    Thomas Moon mtd.dtm2@verizon.net

  • February 5, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Good to have opposing views. But were you actually there?

  • January 14, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    I saw the movie the first time today on Cable, and was some what shocked by the movie. I came to United States in 1982, and I remember what it was like in Taipei. This movies doesn’t even come close. I did know there were certain milirary police activities and Taiwanese Independence Movement in Kaoshiunn. I remeber the other way around. There was a incident where a book publishing company stirred a violent protest (Bealutiful Island Publishing “Literal Translation”. The police formed a human wall with locking arms. It was the demonstrator who throw fire bombs, glass bottles, and assaulted police officers. I remember one of the organizer She Ming Der, who actually is a big critic of Democratic Progressive Party right now.
    If you believe all the big bad CIA and government agencies, I guess you will believe anything. You might as will believe in Santa Claus and Casablanca was real. I hate when Hollywood tries to brain wash us with a polical agenda, yet they really don’t know JACK!

    • March 31, 2011 at 9:02 am

      You are obviously KMT. Only someone from the KMT would say that it was not like that. I too grew up in Taiwan in the 70s and 80s and very clearly remember the Kaohsiung incident, the Lin Yi-Hsiung family, Chen Wen-Chen and Jiang Nan murders. We were all careful about what we said and harassed for speaking Taiwanese. I personally know people who were jailed and punished for advocating democracy. I would say the film didn’t go far enough in talking about the repression back then. I find it sad that so many people still believe the propaganda from back then. I am so happy they made this movie so that the world knows how evil the KMT was back then!

  • September 19, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    Did this person not realize that the movie is just that..a MOVIE and not a documentary! I’ve spoken with a number of people who “lived through it all” as well and they’ve said that after watching Formosa Betrayed it did remind them of what it was like to live in that time period — the spying, the looking over one’s shoulder, the fear. With regards to blowtorches and torture… it would seem that they were using the blowtorch to scare him (no traces). And all those other things probably happened as well, given how both the characters looked afterwards. But it doesn’t really matter — in your interview, it seems like the filmmakers were trying to give a sense of what it was like to live in that period… and if that was goal, it seems they succeeded.

  • September 11, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    Criticism of “Formosa Betrayed” from a person who lived through it all : the film “doesn’t give a real sense of the era, doesn’t make sense. And people weren’t tortured with blowtorches.” They were tortured with tactics the KMT learned from a CIA official, Kaplan, who advised them in the early 70s how not to leave physical evidence of torture, and maximize psychological stress, eg Tiger chair, needles under fingernails and into joints, ‘softened up’ first by putting a bag on their head and kicked the s*** out of…. even waterboarding early on. A bit like pre-cursor to Abu Graib, but played out on a civilian population.

  • August 16, 2010 at 3:53 am

    Oh, I forgot to note that the last time we were in Taiwan as a family to visit my extended relatives was in 1980. They did not allow us to go back until 1992/1993– in 1992, my older sister went on Love Boat, and in 1993, I went to Taiwan Normal University for a 3 month Mandarin language program. By 1993, things were much less awful. However, as a Taiwanese American who spoke Taiwanese growing up, the history of repression and brutality shocks the conscience, and now I know why my friends who are likewise Taiwanese American are so vigilant in their identity. Thank you again.

  • August 16, 2010 at 3:50 am

    I’m taiwanese american, but my parents were too scared to ever tell me anything about tawian’s history except little things that didn’t make sense to a 10 year old (when we were last in Taiwan). The things they told me were faily innocuous, such as they weren’t allowed to speak Taiwanese in grade school and beyond, and would be hit/beat for dong so. Or that my uncle was thrown in jail once, presumably for saying something to a soldier. Or that my mom had to be walked to school every day by her brother to prevent soldiers from harassing her, or worse. However, they never told me the repression and killings. Thank you for letting me know my history.

  • August 15, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    I went to see the movie Saturday, after the breakfast club and there was discussion after the film. Critics have said it is a ‘heavy-handed’ thriller, but there seemed very little heavy-handed about it. This film was extremely well-made, and most people I’ve asked feel it’s about time such a film has been made. The era is rich with fascinating history, twists and turns…
    I took the opportunity to pose this question to all people in the audience: “What one word would you use to describe the film?” They seemed to agree on ‘tong’ — “painful”.

  • August 9, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Just saw the movie tonight (on a DVD, unfortunately). But we want to express our deepest gratitude to Will for making the film. Yes, this was not a documentary, but it was inspired by true events. How do you squeeze 50 years of Taiwanese history into a 100 minute of film? Will has done a super job and we look forward to more of his films in the future. If they are related to anything about Taiwan, even better!

  • August 8, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    09 August 2010 1420 TST
    Hi Will:
    I attended the breakfast meeting with you Saturday morning and then proceeded to see Formosa Betrayed-thoroughly enjoyable with my understanding of this film made easier by the notes taken during the AM meeting.
    Best regards, Brian Lynch


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