Written by J. Michael Cole.
Image credit: courtesy of Mark Twain Productions.
A long time in the making and after many challenges, a major politico-historical TV drama about Taiwan’s democratisation will finally hit TV sets nationwide on 20 January. Based on political developments and figures from the 1990s, “Island Nation” (國際橋牌社) follows the hopes, fears and travails of a wide set of fictional characters in the dramatic years of Taiwan’s transition from an authoritarian state to a democracy.
Realising the 10 episodes comprising the first season was a trial from the outset. Larger-than-life scenes, from a presidential inauguration to large-scale protests, could have busted the budget — always a challenge for TV series in Taiwan which must accomplish much with what often is, by industry standards, very little. But rather than instruct his writers to rewrite the script and scrap potentially costly scenes, the indefatigable producer, Issac Wang (汪怡昕), stuck to his ambitious vision and told his scribes to leave nothing out. “Write it, and I will find a way to make it happen.”
Besides financial challenges, assembling the cast also proved problematic. Several actors and actresses, among other people from Taiwan’s film industry, turned down offers to take part in the project over fears that its political subject — the history of the nation’s democratisation — could compromise their ability to secure jobs in China. In recent years Beijing has blacklisted dozens of Taiwanese artists due to their ostensible support for Taiwanese independence. However, the producers persevered and eventually succeeded in bringing together a stellar cast of performers, some of whom were seasoned artists at the top of their art.
“Island Nation” plunges us into the scheming and uncertainty that surrounded Taiwan’s fledging democracy, when a peaceful transition was anything but a foregone conclusion. The action revolves around politicians who, despite the altered names and dramatic license, will be readily recognisable to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about Taiwan’s history. Many of the pivotal figures are present — Lee Teng-hui (played by singer-actor Yong Lea), Hau Pei-tsun (Lin Tzay-peir), Chen Shui-bian (Action Tang) among them. The plot revolves around incidents that really occurred. But “Island Nation” is not simply a history lesson. Carrying the story along is a set of fictional characters — a presidential bodyguard, politicians and their family members, journalists, dissidents — whose fortunes are inextricably tied to the high affairs of state. Chen Yu, of “The World between Us” 我們與惡的距離 fame, plays an investigative journalist who will not take lies for an answer. Throughout the series, real-life politicians also make a number of cameos, giving an interesting flavor to the production. Among other personalities, William Stanton, the United States’ top politician in Taiwan between 2009 and 2012, assumes the role of an earlier director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the US’s de facto embassy in Taiwan.
This is storytelling at its finest and a creative way to tell Taiwan’s extraordinary story, not only to a foreign audience, but also to new generations of Taiwanese who were born after those pivotal developments in their nation’s history, events that reverberate to the present day. While celebrating Taiwan’s democratisation, the series also strives to humanise all the sides in that complex story, thus avoiding the caricatural depiction of certain historical figures that, far too often, has prevented us from understanding what motivated them and just how high the stakes were.
As they conceived the series, the producers also received unprecedented assistance from many corners, including the Ministry of National Defense (MND) and the Presidential Office, which for the first time in Taiwan’s history allowed a TV series to be filmed inside the building. A number of subject matter experts from Taiwan and abroad were also called upon to ensure accuracy. Among them was Air Force General Shen Yi-ming (沈一鳴), the chief of general staff who perished in the crash of a UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter in early January. Shen generously gave his time to make sure that the scriptwriters got the history right — in his case, the role of Taiwan’s military in a classified operation in Yemen 40 years ago known as the Great Desert Program (大漠計畫).
“Island Nation” could not air at a more propitious time, just weeks after Taiwan’s historic general elections in which the Taiwanese sent an indubitable signal to the world of their willingness to fight to defend the democracy that, as the series shows us, was built on the sacrifices of many others. Back then, just as now, forces both domestic and foreign were conspiring to extinguish that very ideal which is now inseparable from the very identity of the Taiwanese. If only that, “Island Nation” shows that history could have taken a different turn at that important juncture, and Taiwan today could have been a very different place — a place where it might not even have been possible to produce TV series of this kind.
“Island Nation” was produced by Mark Twain Productions. Working alongside Wang, former Public Television Service chairwoman and CEO Sylvia Feng (馮賢賢) acted as executive producer. The head-banging theme song for the series, “Stand Up Like a Taiwanese” (無名英雄), was written and performed by the popular Taiwanese rock band FireEX.
Episodes 1 and 2 of the highly anticipated TV drama will first air on the friDay VOD service on Jan. 20.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham, the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, D.C., and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Canada. He also played a small advisory role for “Island Nation.”