Director paid with his life for love of Taiwan’s beauty

Chi Po-lin was working on a new celebration of the island’s environment when his helicopter crashed, killing the 52-year-old and two others

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 June, 2017, 6:06pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 June, 2017, 10:54pm

Taiwan’s acclaimed documentary director Chi Po-lin was killed in a helicopter crash on Saturday, leaving a legacy of a love of the land and of promoting environmental protection.

Chi was shooting a sequel to his award-winning documentary Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above, when the tragedy took place, which also killed his assistant and the pilot. Chi was 52.

He had been anxious before about flying. Recalling his first helicopter filming excursion for Public Television in Taiwan, he had said: “A week before boarding the helicopter, I was distraught and could not fall asleep at night.

“I was nervous back then,” he recalled. “However, once on board I was very much alive again. Having acrophobia, when I am on top of a building and looking down I get kind of scared. But I don’t feel the same way on the helicopter anymore.”

Saturday’s crash came just two days after Chi said he would raise NT$100 million (US$3.3 million) to film part two of Beyond Beauty. Its launch in 2013 instantly captured the hearts of Taiwanese.

The film, a bird’s-eye view of the beauty of Taiwan’s landscape and the ways in which it has been exploited and polluted, broke the documentary box-office record in Taiwan in 2013.

It was named best documentary at the 2013 Golden Horse Awards – Taiwan’s version of the Oscars – and drew public attention to conserving the environment, leading to the passage of new environmental laws.

Then Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou was so impressed that he personally helped promote the documentary. It was eventually released in some 30 countries, including the United States, Canada and Europe, where it drew critical acclaim.

Before directing Beyond Beauty, Chi had been an aerial photographer for the island’s transport ministry for two decades.

He decided to quit his job in 2009 after he was sent to document the catastrophe caused by Typhoon Morakot – the deadliest storm to hit the island in 50 years, taking at least 700 lives. Landslides completely buried several mountain villages, and many areas were flooded.

“I was saddened to see such a disaster and was alarmed by the seriousness of land exploitation in Taiwan,” said Chi when asked what made him decide to quit the government job.

He set up his own company, using all his savings and even mortgaging his house, to shoot Beyond Beauty. He had difficulty raising funds from others to finance the project, which cost at least NT$90 million.

Commentator Sisy Chen used a Facebook post on Saturday to praise Chi for his great love of Taiwan’s natural environment, even at the expense of his life and his fortune.

Chi once insisted his pilot fly through strong turbulence to film at the top of Taiwan’s Jade Mountain, because a group of indigenous students had climbed up there to be filmed and Chi did not want to disappoint them.

He had once said: “It takes certain kinds of luck and commitment to conduct aerial shooting. A photographer must be committed to his work and risk-taking is often vital.”

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen honoured the filmmaker in a Facebook post, writing: “Director Chi’s works have allowed us to see the beauty of Taiwan, and inspired others to join the efforts to conserve our land. His passing is a tremendous loss to Taiwan.”