April 16, 2024


As U.S. policymakers try to bolster defense for Taiwan vis a vis mainland China, S. Leo Chiang, director of the Oscar-nominated documentary short Island in Between, talks of the “crazy gymnastics” that the country finds itself in between the two world superpowers.

The short, available on The New York Times, spotlights the Taiwanese outer island of Kinmen, just across a strait from mainland China and, given its proximity, a front line in the increasing tensions with the Beijing regime.

That was evident earlier this month, when China’s coast guard boarded a Taiwanese tourist boat that was sightseeing near Kinmen. (As it turns out, the boat actually is featured in the film). That incident came days after a Chinese fishing boat capsized as it was being tailed by a Taiwanese coast guard vessel seeking an inspection. Two occupants on the boat died.

Chiang shot the film over two years from 2021 to 2023. He has said that he wanted to give viewers a “deeper understanding of the Taiwan Strait Crisis through the eyes of the people who live in it, including myself.”

He was born in Taiwan and left when he was 15 to move to the U.S. He’s worked throughout Asia in the last 15 years, and in the last seven years he has been based in Taipei.

“Because of my unique set of backgrounds I do have a particularly point of view,” he said. “I feel like oftentimes we hear the American narrative — it’s like America is watching what is happening between Taiwan and China, and trying to support Taiwan. But the fact is, in an objective way, the U.S. policy is actually influencing the relationship between Taiwan and China. It’s been that way for the last 70 years. The One China policy is an American policy. It is the U.S. that decided to not recognize Taiwan. But, at the same time, without U.S. support, most Taiwanese know that Taiwan probably wouldn’t exist at the moment, because China has not been willing to take any action, given any kind of U.S. retribution. It’s that complicated situation that I want to make sure that folks in the U.S. know more about.”

He spoke to Deadline late last week about the documentary and recent events.

DEADLINE: To what extent did you make this project to counter misperceptions about the situation in Taiwan?

S. LEO CHIANG: It’s not even so much the misperception but it’s almost like a lack of information to start with. I don’t think people really know very much about the details of what’s happening in Taiwan. They might know about Taiwan in terms of it being like a political football that’s being bounced between U.S. and China but don’t really know what the experience is like for the people in Taiwan.

DEADLINE: What has surprised you about what people believe is happening there?

CHIANG: I what was surprising is how big a range, and how differently different people feel about the situation. I spoke to people who really are super worried and thinking about leaving. But then I also talk to many people who just think that it’s all sort of international media hysteria and that everything is kind of grandstanding. It’s all performance and nothing’s really gonna happen.

DEADLINE: Are residents making plans for a potential invasion?

CHIANG: I think that the folks who really are worried, they have found ways to leave. I’ve spoken to some folks who say that nothing’s going to happen. On Kinman Island, I’ve actually spoken to folks who think that they’re actually living in the safest part of Taiwan because historically, these small islands are so close to China that they really believe that China will not attack these islands, because it will set a bad example for the rest of Taiwan, to see that, ‘Oh, even though the island is so close to China, they still got attacked anyway.’ So that’s their logic. They feel like if there was an invasion, the missiles would go to Taipei, and some folks have actually flocked to Kinman Island because it is the safest. If you think about it a little bit, there’s some logic to that. It is really strange to hear it for the first time.

DEADLINE: The latest national security aid package before Congress includes funds for Taiwan and the region. What do you think the impact will be?

CHIANG: I’m definitely not an expert in a policy oriented situation, but I can give you my thoughts. This is a renewal… It’s great to see that there’s an ongoing support. I don’t think China is surprised by this. It is nothing new. I think the [hope] here is Taiwan won’t be politicized as an issue like Ukraine has been over the last year. Taiwan now has bipartisan support. I think there is some fear that domestic U.S. politics will get in the way of this ongoing commitment of the U.S. to support Taiwan.

DEADLINE: You say in the documentary that you feel ‘like a kid in a three way custody battle. They don’t know what I want.’ What do you want to see?

CHIANG: We want to decide our future. We don’t want to be at the mercy of China or the U.S., for that matter. Our future is dictated by what happens in this other relationship between the U.S. and China, and we’re just kind of stuck in the middle, and not having a whole lot of say on what is going to happen.

DEADLINE: What do you think will happen?

CHIANG: People don’t know, with the Chinese governmen, what the process of their decision making is. Every other country in the world, maybe with the exception of North Korea, there’s some some level of transparency or prior examples where you can speculate what might happen. One of the things that I’ve been talking about is that domestically, China’s not doing so well right now economically. So people are saying that means that the Chinese government won’t take this action to do anything to Taiwan. But maybe it’s precisely because the domestic situation isn’t so great that China will do something to Taiwan to distract people from what’s not going right. So we don’t know. I don’t know. I think that’s actually in many ways the point of my film. There’s this constant pressure, that’s still haunting us, and we have no idea what the outcome is. And we can only sit there, in some ways powerlessly, and try to push our lives forward without really having any control over it.



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