400 hours up in the air for Taiwan's top grossing documentary

Over three years, Chi Po-lin spent more than 400 hours flying in a helicopter to capture landscape all over Taiwan.
Over three years, Chi Po-lin spent more than 400 hours flying in a helicopter to capture landscape all over Taiwan.
Taiwan’s Mount Jade was one of the places shot by Chi Po-lin (above) who used to be an aerial photographer in the civil service. -- PHOTOS: THE FILMIC EYE. LIM SIN THAI
Taiwan’s Mount Jade was one of the places shot by Chi Po-lin (above) who used to be an aerial photographer in the civil service. -- PHOTOS: THE FILMIC EYE. LIM SIN THAI
Taiwan’s Mount Jade (above) was one of the places shot by Chi Po-lin who used to be an aerial photographer in the civil service. -- PHOTOS: THE FILMIC EYE. LIM SIN THAI
Taiwan’s Mount Jade (above) was one of the places shot by Chi Po-lin who used to be an aerial photographer in the civil service. -- PHOTOS: THE FILMIC EYE. LIM SIN THAI

Chi Po-lin gave up a stable job to shoot what became the highest-grossing documentary film in Taiwan

Taiwanese aerial photographer Chi Po-lin had a job in the civil service with a comfortable salary, but just a few years away from receiving a substantial pension payout, he gave it all up to shoot a documentary on the environmental hazards that have ravaged Taiwan's beautiful landscape.

To finance the NT90 million (S$3.7 million) project, the 50-year-old mortgaged his Taipei home. His actions even led to his teenage son questioning him: "Dad, will we have enough money for me to attend university?"

Thankfully, the first-time director's sacrifices and efforts paid off - Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above won the Best Documentary Feature at the recent 50th Golden Horse Awards.

The documentary opens in selected cinemas here next Thursday, after it was well-received at its first screening here at the Singapore Chinese Film Festival in April.

The down-to-earth Chi, dressed in a simple T-shirt and jeans at an interview, explained his motivation and dilemma behind his pursuit of his passion project.

The soft-spoken man said in Mandarin: "Seeing the trail of damage that Typhoon Morakot left after it hit Taiwan in 2009 motivated me to shoot this documentary. I wanted to make a film to let Taiwanese know about the land they are living on and its environmental issues.

"I had served in the civil service for 23 years and was mere years away from getting my pension. After much contemplation, I quit my job to shoot this documentary. I was worried that I didn't have the energy to complete the project after retirement.

"I felt that one should do something one is passionate about at least once in a lifetime. I didn't want to have any regrets."

His son, now 22, and 19-year-old daughter, are currently in university. Chi was an aerial photographer in the civil service.

The 93-minute documentary taps on his expertise and features footage of Taiwan's breathtaking landscape from a bird's eye view. Over three years, Chi spent more than 400 hours flying in a helicopter to capture landscape all over Taiwan, from the majestic Mount Jade to the wide expanse of Jiupeng Desert in Pingtung County.

Much to the director's surprise, Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above became the highest-grossing documentary film ever in Taiwan. It earned more than NT$200 million at the box office over the four months it played in cinemas from last November.

He said: "When the documentary opened in cinemas in Taiwan , I thought it would be a film that no one would want to watch."

After all, he added, much of his audience would fall asleep during his talks about the environment.

"I don't blame them because most ordinary folks are apathetic about environmental issues. People think that disasters will never happen to them and that environmental issues don't impact them directly. We were shocked by the media attention and the support from the audience for our film," he said.

The meaningful cause and stunning aerial footage were also what convinced showbusiness luminaries - acclaimed Taiwanese directors Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wu Nien-jen, and award-winning Singaporean composer Ricky Ho - to join the project.

Hou was the documentary's executive producer and Wu lent his voice as the narrator. Ho penned the original music score which garnered a nomination for Best Original Score at the Golden Horse Awards. At the same ceremony in 2011, he won the award for Taiwanese aboriginal epic, Warriors Of The Rainbow: Seediq Bale (2011).

On roping in the Singaporean talent, Chi said: "From the start, I knew I had to have good music. The film has no leading man or lady. The background music will help set the mood to allow the audience to appreciate the images."

The Singapore connection does not stop at the music. The Filmic Eye, which specialises in film education, worked with Cathay Cineplexes to showcase the documentary here.

The documentary was brought in for a wider theatrical release due to overwhelming demand when it was first shown here in April.

Mr David Lee, the vice-chairman of the Singapore Film Society which co-organised the festival, said it had to increase the number of screenings from one to four in order to meet audience demand.

The 35-year-old, who is the managing director of The Filmic Eye, added: "We decided to bring the documentary back because it believes in using the medium of the film as an educational tool. This documentary is a meaningful educational piece that advocates environmental awareness."

The documentary made a political impact within a month of hitting cinemas in Taiwan. The poignant images prompted the Taiwanese Cabinet to convene a special task force to tackle the country's pressing environmental issues.

Though Chi is heartened by the change he has set off, he says he is not passing judgment with his documentary.

He said: "There's a constant conflict between society's progress and environmental protection. In the documentary, I don't use a judgmental tone. What I do is tell audiences how their lifestyle choices will impact the environment. It's up the audience to make a choice."

nggwen@sph.com.sg

Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above opens next Thursday at Cathay cinemas at Orchard Cinelesiure and Jem. Tickets are on sale at all Cathay box offices and its online ticketing site tickets.cathay.com.sg

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