When Adam Kane signed on to direct his feature film debut, Formosa Betrayed, he had the same knowledge of the China-Taiwan dispute as your average American—pretty limited. By the time the film was finished, he could have written a book on the topic.
Inspired by actual events, Formosa Betrayed features James Van Der Beek as an FBI agent investigating a murder at an American college campus. As his investigation deepens, he finds himself in Taiwan, unearthing what seems to be a string of crimes committed by one government that connects back to his original case.
In nearly every story worth telling there’s a struggle between right and wrong, and the best the film industry has to offer recognizes these struggles and turns them into something worth watching. Though Kane has won awards as a cinematographer on “Heroes” and a director of the short film The Fix, his first feature-length effort brought entirely new challenges and dilemmas. From replicating Bangkok for Taiwan to casting James Van Der Beek in the lead just a few days before shooting, Formosa Betrayed is the enjoyable result of endless crunch-time, gut decisions.
Kane took the time to tell MovieMaker about those very decisions—decisions that collectively helped make Formosa Betrayed a reality and have brought relevance to a story that’s gone untold for far too long.
Michael Walsh (MM): Before signing on to direct Formosa Betrayed, was the issue of Taiwanese independence and their struggles with China a story that you were personally interested in, or did that develop after you became the director?
Adam Kane (AK): I first found out about the story in talking with Dave Cluck, one of the movie’s producers. I didn’t really know any history behind the subject. The more I talked with him and [writer-producer-actor] Will Tiao, the more I became fascinated with these people trying to reclaim their own identity. There have been other movies made about this, like The Killing Fields and Missing. Both certainly have touched on the subject of people struggling against a dictatorial government, but I hadn’t really heard anything in the past about Taiwan and their struggle with China, and it just wasn’t something that had been unearthed in my education growing up in California.
MM: This being your first directorial effort on a feature-length film, what challenges came about that you never experienced directing shorts and television programs before?
AK: Working on a feature is a global responsibility for a director, especially with our film being on two continents and in two countries, with crews that spoke different languages. Part of the challenge for me was being able to prepare both the Chicago and the Bangkok crews to shoot at the same time. We were flying back and forth a lot, doing pre-production in Bangkok while we were setting up in Chicago. We shot the Chicago stuff first, so keeping everybody going with the Bangkok work was really the biggest challenge we had.
MM: What went into the decision to shoot in Bangkok, as opposed to shooting in Taiwan where the film took place?
AK: We looked at both Taiwan and Bangkok on the initial scout, and there were a couple factors that brought us to Bangkok. First, Taiwan looks very, very different than it did in the ’80s. The country’s quite rich and it’s done very well for itself. It’s because of the infrastructure that was set up by the Japanese in the early part of the 20th century that allowed it to become so prosperous. They’re one of the world’s largest producers of semiconductors. With your phone and your television set, the semiconductors in them are probably made in Taiwan, and due to this the city has refaced itself several times. So it doesn’t look anything like it did back in the ’80s. And Bangkok, ironically—or oddly—looks much more like Taiwan did during that time period.
Also, there’s a massive filming infrastructure already in place in Bangkok. They’ve got their own film laboratories, several different camera houses and a lot of different crews. That was important. Thirdly, we were concerned that some of the political elements in the film would be sensitive, especially in today’s news with Obama having just made this $6 billion arms deal with Taiwan, inciting the Chinese. We were concerned that with some of the events we portray in the movie… we might get some resistance—and being a small film, we thought that if we were shut down, we wouldn’t be able to recover from that.
MM: Do you feel that anything else in the film and Will Tiao’s story has a cultural impact and relevance in today’s political landscape and our relationships overseas?
AK: Absolutely. More than any other topic for China and Taiwan, this issue of Taiwan splitting off and becoming independent is the biggest culture issue that exists in their society today, and America’s place in that is very complicated. We have the One-China policy that was set up by Richard Nixon in the early ’70s, which says that we the United States recognize China and Taiwan as one country. But we also have something called the Taiwan Relations Act, which says that in the event of an attack, we’d be obligated to defend Taiwan—but the only country that would attack Taiwan is China. So it’s a very complicated situation, and therefore every time that this subject comes up, whether it’s in the media or in a film like this, it becomes a very sticky talking point. There’s a bit of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that exists with most Taiwanese people, which is to say that these countries have pretty much been at peace for the last 15 or 20 years since democracy has been set up there, and if no one talks about becoming independent then nobody gets upset.
MM: Which is so important with China still to this day having missiles pointed at Taiwan.
AK: That’s right. And so it’s really sticky. In The New York Times a couple days ago there was a story on page two about the arms sale, and it indicates that even more than the Dalai Lama or human rights, this issue of the independence of Taiwan is probably the biggest issue facing the two countries—it’s because Taiwan wants its own identity, but the Chinese believe they’re all one culture and there’s no reason to secede.
MM: Did you always have James Van Der Beek in mind to play the role of Jake Kelly, or was that auditioning process more involved?
AK: That was more involved, and we came to James very late in the process. We actually came to James only about three or four days before shooting. James, to his credit, came in and auditioned along with Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker, and with Ethan Embry and a few other really talented actors, and everybody was really fabulous. However, what we realized after the auditions was that James was really who we wrote in the movie. He’s young enough to be starting out a middle-management career in the FBI, but he’s not so savvy because of his age that he would be able to cross a superior in a situation like this—especially as a guest in another country—and take things into his own hands. So he was actually exactly who we wanted to portray in this movie, because James to us really represents the quintessential American. We wanted to take our journey with him through the movie, through Jake Kelly, and that’s what James brought to the picture.
MM: Did Will Taio always want to play Ming, or was that your decision? He created the original story, so did he create it with himself playing that character in mind, or did that develop later as well?
AK: The character of Ming was something that I brought to the script when I came on as director. I had read several drafts of the script through Dave Cluck, and [the producers] had two other directors before I came on board—which, for one reason or another, didn’t work out—and the scripts went through different writers and different drafts. I never really felt any one of them hit a base understanding for the audience when I read it.
I was [working] on a TV show called “Pushing Daisies” as a producer-director right before the writers strike. And when the writer’s strike hit, everybody was out of work. So during Christmas of 2007, I was re-reading the Formosa Betrayed script, and it suddenly dawned on me that we, as audience members, had no one person to identify with on the Taiwanese side, no one to identify with their human struggle. As a result of this, I came up with the idea of having the character of Ming be somebody that Jake Kelly needs on this journey to Taiwan. In the beginning we discover Ming as a Taiwanese man, but at the end of the journey we realize and identify with him as more of a human being and we see beyond the race. It’s a similar kind of thing that we experience in movies like The Killing Fields and The Year of Living Dangerously, and I thought that it was the best way for us as audience members to be brought into the movie and have some sort of human understanding of the story.
MM: Seeing as the film is inspired by true events, and seeing as you had a lot of creative input—like with the character of Ming—as the director, was it more important for you to tell the story as it happened in reality, or were you more passionate about making your audience aware of the general issues between Taiwan and China?
AK: The events in the story are amalgamations of things that happened, and that’s why we say it’s inspired by true events as opposed to based on. There’s no one story that it’s based on. There are several characters that were killed in the U.S. in the early ’80s that were Taiwanese and came over to become American citizens. We wanted to focus on one of those cases that became iconic, so the case in Chicago didn’t actually happen in Chicago; there was a case in San Francisco and also a case in Pennsylvania, and so we ended up making an amalgamation. But it was more important for me to find a balance of telling a history of what happened in that country without overwhelming the audience with a civics lesson.
MM: What’s next for you?
AK: Well, I just directed the season finale of “Heroes.” Which aired on February 8, and I’m directing several different episodes of television, like “The Mentalist” for example, which I’m directing this month. And I’ve been developing future projects, some with Will [Tiao] and some on my own.
Formosa Betrayed opens in select cities on February 26, 2010. For more information on screenings, visit www.formosathemovie.com.