Starting off like a tourist promo, “Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above” swiftly morphs into an ecological cautionary tale. Inspired by Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s “Home” (2009), this first aerial documentary from Taiwan, produced by Hou Hsiao Hsien and helmed and lensed by Chi Po-lin, juxtaposes the island’s breathtaking natural scenery with its alarming despoilation by human greed and negligence. Visually rapturous, yet increasingly dour as it rattles off a litany of environmental crimes, the pic managed to raise widespread media and public consciousness at home with its tough-love attitude and fresh cinematic angle. Already Taiwan’s highest-grossing domestic docu, it could catch the eyes of nature-themed festivals, National Geographic or similar educational channels.
Following its world premiere at the first Taoyuan Film Festival, the film went on to win the Golden Horse Award for best documentary and even inspired a Facebook post by President Ma Ying-jeou, announcing that the government would start work on 16 of the environmental problems highlighted by the film.
Combining extensive knowledge of Taiwan’s geography (drawn from a long stint at the National Highway Engineering Bureau) with 20 years’ experience as a professional aerial photographer, Chi spent about 400 hours’ flying time over three years to capture his images. The approximately $9 million project has an advantage over “Home” in focusing on one territory with its specific culture and ecosystem, thus avoiding the sort of sanctimonious tone that can come with generalizations. Via the sincere, approachable voiceover of masterful Taiwan New Wave screenwriter-helmer Wu Nien-jen (“A Borrowed Life”), the narration, though often mournful, also evokes a Chinese-style poetic romanticism.
As the camera swoops over the verdurous topography, its roads and tributaries intertwined like branches of a tree, Wu promises to show Taiwan as never seen before; quoting the title of Yasunari Kawabata’s novel, he proceeds to chronicle the island’s “beauty and sorrow.” However, after less than 10 minutes of aerial images that extol the exquisite beauty of Taiwan’s mountains and coastline, the rest of the docu rests heavily on the sorrowful side. Noting the frequency of supposedly “natural” disasters like floods and landslides, the film points a finger at numerous byproducts of unchecked economic expansion.
High mountains that occupy two-thirds of the land are ravaged by heavy logging, roadworks, and over-harvesting of minerals and cash crops like tea and betel nut. Moving from land to water, things only get worse. Mud and stone deposits from construction projects pollute reservoirs and reduce their life expectancy. The building of breakwaters for farming has nearly cordoned off the coastline from the ocean. One-half of Taiwan’s wetlands are disappearing, ruining her once-abundant biodiversity. Air pollution from factories is compounded by massive electricity use on a national scale, epitomized by the little-known fact that the world’s largest coal-fired power plant is located in Taichung.
All this environmental malpractice may not be unique to Taiwan, but the statistics will register strongly even for international auds, such as the 7.4 million tons of refuse produced yearly, or the 19 million tons of cement mined yearly, of which half is exported purely for profit.
Viewed from such a high altitude, the degree of devastation looks especially grave, yet it’s hard to look away. Chi is expert at capturing images with powerful impact, such as condos perched precariously on a visibly eroded precipice, or canals with water as black as squid ink running through large residential areas, or a woodland’s bald patches after being razed for limestone and silica mining.
The last 15 minutes or so lighten up with the introduction of nature-conscious entrepreneurs who operate organic farms against all odds. The closing shots provide a change of scenery with truly wondrous vistas of Taiwan’s multi-hued landscape, but increasing the proportion of such positive material would actually strengthen the film’s argument for dealing with these crises pronto.
Considered Taiwan’s top aerial photographer, Chi, lensing in Cineflex Hidef, immerses the viewer in a sense of perpetual fluidity. The score by Singapore’s Ricky Ho (“Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale”), which features three aboriginal songs written by “Warriors'” pastor-turned-lead-actor Lin Ching-tai, brim with uplifting spirituality, especially when sung by a choir that appears to have been airdropped onto an unnervingly tall mountain peak.