<i>Formosa Betrayed</i>

When most people think of the struggle for self-determination, Tibet or Burma rise to mind. Few are likely to consider the struggle of the Taiwanese against the ruling Republic of China (ROC) government and constant threat from the mainland People’s Republic of China. Former “Dawson’s Creek” heartthrob James Van Der Beek helps shed light on the subject in his new film, Formosa Betrayed.

Van Der Beek portrays FBI agent Jake Kelly, tasked with investigating the murder of Taiwanese-American Professor Dr. Wen, which initially presents itself as a gang-instigated homicide. Dr. Wen’s grieving widow raises questions about the true motives of her husband’s killers, revealing that Wen was an outspoken activist for Taiwanese independence and writing a book about the 228 Massacre that left 10-30,000 Taiwanese protesters dead at the hands of the Kuomintang government.

When the killers flee to Taiwan, Kelly is invited to observe the investigation on Taiwanese soil. But it soon becomes apparent that something else is going on just below the surface, something far more sinister. With the help of activist Ming (Will Tiao), Kelly uncovers a conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of the ROC government.

Although the story is based on a composite of true events, Formosa Betrayed offers far more than your standard documentary, instead serving up a gripping political thriller that acts as a catalyst for dialogue.

“Instead of giving a history lesson which can be really boring, we had to give the audience an entry point in the story. So they see it through the eyes of this FBI agent who is just starting to realize how high up this whole conspiracy goes,” explains Van Der Beek. Van Der Beek admits that prior to the screenplay landing on his desk, he himself was uninformed about the topic at hand.

“I had zero awareness. I was about as ignorant as anyone could be about it,” he says. “I just didn’t know. A lot of Americans don’t. And I had a pretty good education. It just wasn’t something that was covered.”

The role is quite a leap from the actor’s previous roles on “Dawson’s Creek” and in the film Varsity Blues.

“I always like to do something different every time out. I just like telling good stories and I like playing interesting characters,” says Van Der Beek. “And to be quite honest, I haven’t been old enough to be in a political thriller. This is the first time I’ve been at an age where I can believably play an FBI agent.”

Formosa Betrayed was filmed both in Chicago and Bangkok over the course of several weeks. The choice of Bangkok, Van Der Beek explains, was because Bangkok still looks like Taipei did during the historical setting of the film, whereas Taipei is now a developed and thriving financial center.

“There’s really no substitute for shooting in the actual environment, very similar to the one in which you’re portraying. And for me to be there, my character is in a place where he doesn’t know the language, he doesn’t know the culture, is kind of in over his head and I think I was able to relate obviously to all of that. Being in a foreign country, not understanding the language, trying to figure out what’s going on. It just made it feel all that more real,” Van Der Beek says.

The groundbreaking film might never have emerged were it not for the perseverance of co-star Tiao. Born in Kansas to Taiwanese parents, he grew up with the history of Taiwan implanted in his consciousness. Having worked in international politics under the Clinton and Bush administrations, he left his career with the U.S. government to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. With telling the story of Taiwan (once called Formosa by the Portuguese) his main passion, he steadily raised the funds for the project, managing to see his dream realized with the formation of Formosa Films.

“You really felt his passion for getting this story out there. For him and his family this is their The Killing Fields; this is their Syriana,” says Van Der Beek. “It really put the whole history into context to see that there’s a guy who’s finally getting to manifest his dream of telling this story and you get to be a part of it. I think fun is the wrong word, but it made it gratifying at the end of the day.”

He adds, “Some of the financiers of this film actually lived through this. The people that you see in the protest scene in Chicago in the march were people that organized those marches back in the day. So there’s just a sense throughout the whole shooting itself that this was something bigger than any of us. So at the end of an 18, 20-hour day, it’s your motivation to just suck it up and do it because we’re not just playing for yuks here. This is actually something that is itself pretty important.”