Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above review: Hope for ravaged beauty

A photographer's love for Taiwan, whose natural charms are ruined by human beings, shines through in documentary

Looming tragedy: Aerial photography by Chi Po-lin for Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above. -- PHOTO: TAIWAN AERIAL IMAGING
Looming tragedy: Aerial photography by Chi Po-lin for Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above. -- PHOTO: TAIWAN AERIAL IMAGING

Review Documentary


93 minutes/Opens tomorrow/****

The story: Taiwan's Chi Po-lin was an aerial photographer in the civil service and he quit his job to turn his eye on the state of things in Taiwan in his first film. Sweeping vistas of natural beauty and damning portraits of pollution and over-development unfold to a voiceover by acclaimed director Wu Nien-jen.

This is Taiwan? That is the first reaction on seeing the opening images of unspoilt natural beauty.

For those more familiar with the urban charms of Taipei, the images of craggy mountain ranges, rugged coastlines and majestic deer roaming in fields of green will come as a pleasant surprise.

It is not just foreigners who might feel the same way, as Wu says: "Don't be surprised, this is our home, Taiwan."

Adding to the impact of the visuals is a stirring score by award-winning Singaporean composer Ricky Ho, who was nominated for Best Original Film Score at the Golden Horse Awards. But Beyond Beauty is not just some brochure of a glossy idyll by the tourism office. If it were, it would not have won the Golden Horse Award for Best Documentary.

Chi has weightier issues on his mind and, in fact, the destructive impact of rampant tourism comes in for its share of criticism. From above looking down, one sees not just beauty, but also a ravaged landscape.

He shows us the destructive force of landslides and makes a persuasive case that the increased frequency of natural disasters is the result of human development.

Cutting roads into mountains makes it more convenient to transport goods and holiday-makers, but doing so disrupts the natural flow of water. Because money talks, trees are cut down so that cash crops such as betel nut, tea and cabbage can be grown. It is more than mountains can bear as soil comes loose and newly developed roads and resorts lie in the shadow of looming tragedy.

To his credit, Chi does not harangue. Instead, what comes through is a genuine love for the land and the pain and indignation of seeing it thoughtlessly scarred.

Beauty still exists, but it has to be protected and respected and not trampled on in the name of reckless progress. He also acknowledges that this is not a simple issue and the contradictions between environmental protection and the unsustainable way of life will not be easily resolved.

The documentary ends on a note of hope as it singles out individuals who are trying to make a difference in the way they work with the land.

For city-dwellers who have a warped and distant relationship with land, this is an eye-opening work.

At home, the film has resonated as well. It is the highest-grossing local documentary feature in Taiwan, taking in more than NT$200 million (S$8.3 million) at the box office since its release last November.

As word spreads, hopefully this will further raise awareness and maybe, just maybe, mark the turning of the tide.

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