A formulaic but diverting tale of intrigue and oppression.

U.S.-Thai co-production “Formosa Betrayed” is a decent political thriller set in Taiwan with the requisite Western-market-friendly lead and a determinedly pro-independence message embedded in a formulaic but diverting tale of intrigue and oppression. Major problem is that producer/co-story originator/thesp Will Tiao created a key role for himself whose histrionics he has neither the skill nor presence to pull off. Toplining James Van Der Beek, the pic may be a better fit for cable TV in North America, but elsewhere could pick up theatrical as well as ancillary play.

FBI agent Jake Kelly (Van Der Beek) has come to Taipei (circa early 1980s) to participate in the local police investigation into the murder of a prominent Taiwanese-American professor and independence activist in Chicago. Authorities, however, seem more interested in distracting him from finding anything, and anyone who might help –including the assassins themselves — ends up dead before he can question them.

With major assistance from waiter-cum-pro-democracy-agitator Ming (Tiao, further burdened by lengthy speeches explaining the region’s political and historical complexities) — and contrastingly little from two-faced U.S. attachee Susan Kane (Wendy Crewson), Kelly realizes that local authorities, the Chinese government and criminal gangs are in cahoots.

The story is bookended by scenes in which Kelly tries to board a U.S.-bound plane with two fugitives at the heavily guarded airport; other sequences scattered throughout offer brief black-and-white archival-footage recaps of modern Taiwan history from Japanese occupation onward.

Briskly paced and fairly expansive in scale on a modest budget (less than $10 million), the pic sports some of the usual genre implausibilities, especially in terms of the hero’s frequent willingness to flaunt agency protocol and risk creating an international incident. (One also doubts the FBI encourages its agents to travel abroad sporting fashionable three-day stubble.)

Debuting feature director Adam King (vet of several TV episodes and numerous d.p. gigs) keeps things slick and entertaining enough, if not particularly inspired.

Van Der Beek, “Dawson’s Creek” by now well behind him, is acquiring the kind of credibly adult masculine authority many former teen idols never achieve, while Crewson is very good as a convincingly slippery policy wonk. Tiao aside, support cast is solid, tech package likewise.

Formosa Betrayed

U.S.-Thailand

Production

A Formosa Films presentation. (International sales: Formosa Films, Los Angeles.) Produced by Will Tiao, David Cluck, Adam Kane. Co-producer, Jonna Walsh. Directed by Adam Kane. Screenplay, Charlie Stratton, Yann Samuell, Brian Askew, Nathaniel Goodman, from a story by Will Tiao, Katie Swain.

Crew

Camera (color), Irek Hartowicz; editor, Howard E. Smith; music, Jeff Danna; production designer, Anthony Rivero Stabley; costume designer, Karyn Wagner; art director, Arin Pinijvararak; set decorator, Tricia Schneider; sound (Dolby Digital), Paul Aulicino, Nerses Gezalyan, Steve La Fayette, Alex Riordan; casting, Deborah Aquila, Claire Simon, Mary Tricia Wood. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (Focus on World Cinema), Aug. 3, 2009. Running time: 108 MIN.

With

James Van Der Beek, Wendy Crewson, John Heard, Will Tiao, Tzi Ma, Leslie Hope, Kenneth Tsang.
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