Political Film Review #351

In 1989, the Political Film Society voted A City of Sadness (Bei qing cheng shi) as the best political film at the East-West Center Film Festival. The film depicted the brutal takeover as the Nationalist China Army retreated from Mainland China to the island of Taiwan, killing thousands and displacing Taiwan authorities with iron rule by Chiang Kai-Shek, who branded proponents of democratic Taiwanese rule as Communists. Formosa Betrayed, directed by Adam Kane, updates that period of tyrannical rule by focusing on a fictional FBI agent, Jake Kelly (played by James Van Der Beek), in the investigation of a murder in Chicago during 1983. Professor Henry Wen (played by Joseph Foronda) is the murder victim in the film (though the character is a composite of pro-democracy Professor Chen Wen-Chen, who died while in Taiwan during 1981, and journalist Henry Liu, killed during 1984 in Daly City). The two assassins, soon identified, somehow slip through customs and fly back to Taipei. The murder in the film is protested by many, including Taiwan students inside the United States (though the film does not reveal that they were fully aware that they were being spied upon by fellow students). Because a member of Congress, evidently responding to the protests, insists on an investigation of the murderer, Kelly is assigned to go to Taiwan to “assist” in the investigation. Before departing Chicago, Wen’s widow (played by Tonray Ho) urges Kelly to contact the head of the national museum, a personal friend of the Wens. Upon his arrival in Taipei (but filmed in Thailand), the Taiwan police and the American emissary in the country, Susan Kane (played by Wendy Crewson) make clear that Kelly is only an observer and is not to get involved in the investigation. When one of the assassins is killed by Taiwan police, Kelly is suspicious because he cannot be questioned regarding the plot, which clearly was organized by someone who paid both assassins. After telephoning the museum curator (played by Nirut Sirichanya), who sends a confidant, Ming (played by Will Tiao), the three meet in Kaioshung, south Taiwan, during a pro-democracy demonstration that is suppressed by the police. Kelly thereafter becomes more involved with the pro-democracy movement and even learns that Chiang Kai-Shek’s government funded the Contras in Honduras, who sought to topple Sandinista rule in Nicaragua, in exchange for military supplies from the United States. A title at the end credits the incident as one among several that promoted the ultimate success of the democratic movement in Taiwan, where the first popular presidential election occurred in 1996. Another title warns that China will go to war if Taiwan declares independence. The Political Film Society has nominated Formosa Betrayed as the best film of 2010 in all four categories—exposé, democracy, human rights, and peace. MH

When The Prophet (Un prophète) begins, nineteen-year-old Malik El Djebena (played by Tahar Rahim) has been arrested, his public defender has bargained him into a guilty plea with six years imprisonment. Although he was in reform school before, this is his first time in prison. The boss among the prisoners, Corsican César Luciani (played by Niels Arestrup) offers Malik protection if he will bump off someone. Malik, who complies and becomes Luciani’s servant, then enjoys better food, clothing, a TV, and a few twelve-hour passes. But Malik, a Corsican Arab, has his own agenda as well, since he has a partner in crime on the outside. Gradually, the power structure changes, as President Nicolas Sarkozy sends most Corsicans back to a prison in Corsica. The Muslims become the overwhelming majority, so Luciani is dethroned. Malik eventually is released, having come of age in a most unusual way. Directed by Jacques Audiard, the film depicts how the underworld in France operates in and out of prison. MH