In documenting Taiwan, filmmaker makes ultimate sacrifice

Filmmaker Chi Po-lin (???) 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 his 2013 documentary "Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above" (????), which became the highest grossing documentary in Taiwan's history.

On June 10, the acclaimed 52-year-old director gave up his life doing what he loved most -- shooting images of his homeland from a helicopter.

The chopper that carried the father of two and his 25-year-old assistant photographer crashed while filming in eastern Taiwan's Hualien County, resulting in their death and that of the pilot. The team was filming for the sequel to "Beyond Beauty" at the time of the accident.

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 shot a short film featuring Chi for Google Inc. in 2012.

Lu, who later became close friends with Chi, described the director as a warm and kind person.

"He always carried a smile on his face, and almost never got angry with people, whether he was dealing with work or other challenges," Lu said. "I never saw him use mean words toward others. He was always a warm person."

"He risked his life in the air for every photograph he took. My heart aches tremendously," another friend, TV commentator Sisy Chen (???), wrote on her Facebook page.

Chi, who had over 20 years of experience shooting images from helicopters, appeared to be fully aware of the risk involved. In his past writings and interviews, the director had recounted some of the scary moments, especially when filming over mountainous areas.

One time, filming at Yushan, Taiwan's highest mountain, the pilot of Chi's helicopter lost control of the aircraft momentarily after encountering a turbulence, Chi 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."

"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 would worry."

Every time something like this happened, Chi told 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.

During a press conference two days before the crash, Chi told reporters that 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.

Chi's passion for aerial photography began while he was an employee at 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, Chi rented helicopters during his free time to take still images of Taiwan's mountains, coastline and other places.

In 2009, after witnessing the damage inflicted by Typhoon Morakot, which triggered the worst flooding in Taiwan in half a century, Chi purchased his own filming equipment at a price of about NT$30 million, quit his job and set off to make a film to warn people 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 in his book.

Chi's "Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above" cost NT$90 million (US$2.99 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 local people more aware of the beauty of the island, as well as the man-made environmental destruction to which it had been subjected as a result of decades of rapid economic growth.

The film won the best documentary award at the 50th Golden Horse Awards, Taiwan's equivalent to the Oscars.

It also led to a government crackdown on environmental offenses 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 peoples' "pair of eyes in the sky" and to show the country's natural beauty to its people.

Following Chi's death on Saturday, Chi's son wrote in an online post that his father "loved (Taiwan) so much he was prepared to give up his life."

Speaking at the press conference 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.

The director said he visited more than 30 countries to scout for locations and planned to film it mostly in Taiwan but also in other countries, such as Japan, New Zealand, Malaysia and China, because he wanted people to recognize that environmental problems know no borders.

In addition to filming from the air, the new documentary would also take viewers under ocean and discuss problems such as marine trash, Chi said.

The film would also trace the footsteps of Taiwan's ancestors and teach people about the plate collision that formed Taiwan, he said.

"I hope the sequel will allow more people to get to know the past, present and future of Taiwan. I especially hope that it will give our young people an international perspective...and allow the world to see more of Taiwan, and Taiwan the world."

In a concert in Tainan City Saturday night, Vox Nativa children's choir, which appeared in an iconic scene on top of Yushan mountain in "Beyond Beauty," performed Chi's favorite song, the Japanese song "Kikyuu ni Notte Dokomade mo" (Fly Away on a Balloon), to remember the director.

"He is free now. He will truly fly in the sky forever," said Akuan Liao (???), an executive member of Vox Nativa Association, Taiwan.

Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel