Beyond Beauty director Chi Po-lin dies in helicopter crash

Film-maker Chi Po-lin took 400 hours in the air to shoot Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above (above).
Film-maker Chi Po-lin took 400 hours in the air to shoot Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above (above). PHOTO: TAIWAN AERIAL IMAGING
Film-maker Chi Po-lin (above) took 400 hours in the air to shoot Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above.
Film-maker Chi Po-lin (above) took 400 hours in the air to shoot Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above.PHOTO: ST FILE

Chi Po-lin was filming the sequel to his award-winning documentary, Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above, when the helicopter he was in crashed

TAIPEI • The Chinese names of film-maker Chi Po-lin and his award-winning documentary Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above were displayed on the skyscraper, Taipei 101, on Sunday, as Taiwan marked his death in a helicopter crash in Hualien.

He gave up many things to pursue his dream of documenting Taiwan through aerial photography.

He mortgaged his house, borrowed money from friends and quit his job as a civil servant at the age of 47 - just three years before qualifying for a lifetime pension - all to make Beyond Beauty, his 2013 film that became the highest-grossing documentary in Taiwan's history.

At a press conference two days before the crash, he said he chose not to use drones, but to do the filming himself because images produced by drones are of an inferior quality and he would not be able to live with that.

Last Saturday, he gave his life while filming the sequel to Beyond Beauty in Hualien county in eastern Taiwan. He was 52.

The chopper carrying him and photographer Chen Kuan-chi, 25, crashed, killing them and helicopter pilot Chang Chi-kuang, 52.

On Monday morning, two Air Force cargo planes carried the trio's remains from Hualien to Taipei. The trio's families were present and boarded the flights with the coffins. The cause of the crash is still under investigation.

News of Chi's death stunned film and cultural circles.

"Contemporary Taiwan has just lost someone like Chi Po-lin - a man of conscience who is willing to sacrifice himself," said commercial director Kurt Lu, who became close friends with Chi after shooting a short film featuring him for Google in 2012.

Another friend, television commentator Sisy Chen, wrote on her Facebook page: "He risked his life in the air for every photograph he took. My heart aches tremendously."

Chi, who had more than 20 years of experience in aerial photography, appeared to be fully aware of the risk involved. In writings and interviews, he recounted some scary moments, especially when filming in mountainous areas.

One time, at Yushan, Taiwan's highest mountain, the pilot lost control of the helicopter carrying Chi momentarily after encountering turbulence, he wrote in one of his books.

"My mind went blank. Before I could say my prayers, I screamed and shouted instinctively. In those seconds, I really believed the chopper was going to go down," he said. "That wasn't the only time... fortunately, we were always able to pull off a narrow escape.

"But no matter how many times this has occurred, I am still frightened when it does. I never dare tell my family these things because I am afraid they will worry."

Every time something like this happened, Chi would tell himself to quit flying and not take the risk.

"But after I wake up the next day or after some time has passed and I see the good weather and good visibility, I always want to fly again," he wrote.

His passion for aerial photography began while he was an employee of the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, where he was responsible for documenting major construction projects, such as highway projects, from the air.

As his interest grew, he rented helicopters in his free time to take still images of Taiwan's mountains, coastline and other areas.

In 2009, after witnessing the damage caused by Typhoon Morakot, which triggered the worst flooding in Taiwan in half a century, he purchased his own filming equipment for about NT$30 million, quit his job and set out to make a film about the importance of environmental protection.

"At the age of 47, just three years before I became eligible for retirement, I quit my civil servant job to become a full-time aerial photographer. I will be dedicating the rest of my life to what I love the most. I'm very frightened, but very happy," he wrote.

Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above cost NT$90 million and took three years, including 400 hours in the air, to complete.

It is widely considered to have played an important role in making Taiwanese more aware of the beauty of the island, as well as the man-made environmental destruction to which it had been subjected in decades of rapid economic growth.

The film won Best Documentary at the Golden Horse Awards. It also led to a government crackdown on environmental offences such as illegally built guesthouses in mountainous areas, industrial pollution in rivers and illegal mining operations.

In a 2011 video, in which Chi was filmed speaking with then president Ma Ying-jeou, the director said he hoped to become the Taiwanese people's "pair of eyes in the sky".

On June 8, which was World Oceans Day, Chi, wearing a blue suit, announced his ambitions for the sequel set to be released in 2019.

He said he had visited more than 30 destinations to scout for locations and planned to film it mostly in Taiwan, but also in Japan, New Zealand, Malaysia and China, because he wanted people to recognise that environmental problems know no borders.

In addition to aerial photography, the sequel would also take viewers underwater and discuss problems such as marine trash, he said. The film would also trace the footsteps of Taiwan's ancestors and the plate collision that formed the island, he said.

After his death, his company, Taiwan Aerial Imaging, said it was assisting in his funeral and had not discussed the fate of the sequel, reported Apple Daily.

The estimated cost of the project was NT$100 million (S$4.6 million), of which NT$30 million has been raised. On Sunday, Chunghwa Telecom chairman Cheng Yu said he would fully support the sequel.

However, director Kevin H.J. Lee said: "Whether it's a documentary or a director, the creator's core concept is the most important.

"If no one fully understands director Chi's idea, there is no way to continue it, and there will be a big fault in the work."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2017, with the headline 'Director's fatal sacrifice for craft'. Print Edition | Subscribe