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.
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.”
“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.”