A history lesson cloaked in the guise of a political thriller, Formosa Betrayed unfolds during the Reagan-era 1980s, when a rookie FBI agent named Jake Kelly (James Van Der Beek) travels to Taiwan (aka Formosa) to observe an investigation into the possible connection between killers on the island and the murder of a Chicago college professor and human rights activist.
Soon after arriving, Kelly becomes increasingly suspicious that the murder was an assassination - one possibly ordered by the Taiwanese government, eager to quell any and all of its vocal critics, even those living on U.S. soil. Much of Kelly's gradual enlightenment comes courtesy of Ming (played by Will Tao, who also co-wrote the screenplay), an underground activist prone to speechifying about Taiwan's tumultous past and the need for democratic, independent rule ("What do you know about the history of my country?" he asks the agent point-blank, before settling in for a long-winded answer).
Director Adam Kane tries to invest Formosa Betrayed with a mounting sense of outrage and paranoia, like in a Costa-Gavras thriller, but the amount of exposition in the film is daunting. Van Der Beek, all grown up from Dawson's Creek, is better than expected as the naive American agent whose eyes are opened to his country's possible involvement with a cover-up. But characterization is not the movie's chief strength or interest.
Despite its admirable intentions, Formosa Betrayed can't overcome the aura of scolding history lesson that haunts every frame, and Kane's occasional use of archival footage doesn't help. The movie unquestionably achieves its goal of illuminating the audience: Whether or not it also manages to entertain is more debatable.
Formosa Betrayed (** out of ****) opens in Miami today at the Cobb Hialeah.