Review: Beyond Beauty- Taiwan from Above

Beyond Beauty- Taiwan from Above, is both a documentary and critique of Taiwan through images of various kinds of landscapes that are shot from the sky using aerial photography. Resembling much like the aerial photography used in films such as Chronos, Beyond Beauty opens with scenes depicting some of Taiwan’s most pristine and preserved mountains, wildlife and water sources, which judging by audience’s reactions in Taiwan, were some of the most unknown things or hard to reach places throughout the island.

Using a calm and collective voice to introduce the film, the narrator through Chinese Mandarin (and English subtitles) tells the audience to not be startled by the fact that the images are indeed from Taiwan. The narrator also suggests that the audience should think of themselves as a bird or drifting cloud that is soaring high above, taking in the images of all of the island’s natural glory. These words coupled with the images captured from Taiwan top director Chi Po-lin and music from Taiwan renowned composer Ricky Ho, left viewers feeling amazed and inspired.

After “drifting through the air” for about 15-20 minutes observing various landscapes, viewers increasingly gather their sense of appreciation and awe for Formosa, the name previously used to refer to Taiwan meaning “Beautiful Island”. However, those emotions suddenly shift gears when the images transition into scenes of landscape eroding, pollution from factories, massive construction and overpopulation.

What seemed to be a film that was just going to push the beauty and natural environment at its best quickly became a critique of how those grandiose places are facing grave danger. The narrator suddenly tells viewers that Taiwan is facing a “crisis” , one of which is increasingly growing, almost completely unbeknownst to the public. Following this are more images of “crises” coupled with dramatic music and the audiences are told yet again that things are getting bad in Taiwan; yet, the narrator chooses to be ambiguous in how the crises are evolving in Taiwan.

After what seemed about 20-30 minutes of suspense built around the lingering “crises” the narrator then reveals that Taiwan’s natural environment is under turmoil due to the nation’s development. Ah ha, finally, a reason and not ambiguous blame. Following this, the narrator apprehensively points out statistics on how much clean water is being used up each year; how much land is being dug up for housing and various mineral exports; how Taiwan is emitting some of the highest CO2 emissions at some of its energy facilities; how cement is being barricaded around the island (about 55% of Taiwan’s shores have cement walls along them), which is cutting off ties between locals and their environment; and a number of other problems such as waste being dumped near oceans. The list went on and on and on.

The film then says that all of this turmoil is increasingly faster and accumulating each year as economic development increases and as people strive for better lives. The film also states that it does not intend to blame people for what has happened, but as Taiwanese have greatly improved their standards of living and became an economic miracle around the world, they have not considered the ramifications to their natural environment amid capitalist economic growth.

Ouch. The audiences suddenly felt terrible and expressions of smiles went bitter at this point. No doubt the director wanted to draw attention to the issue…but did he just make everyone feel bad and helpless.

At this point in the film, what should have come were solutions. After all, we just were told how bad everything is due to society evolving, so surely the film will provide concrete evidence as to what we can do to fix things, right? Wrong. What could have been a good opportunity to present multiple ways of what Taiwanese could consider doing, even if it were simple things in their everyday lives, to help better Taiwan’s natural environment, Beyond Beauty then only points to two different farmer families that are harvesting their own crops via organic means to somehow prove that such actions will improve the natural environment crises in Taiwan. The film then ends by more or less saying a lot needs to be done, and offers no other solutions beyond that.

What? That’s it!? But what can citizens who obviously cannot move to the countryside to perform such tasks do? Should they feel bad and guilty, which will somehow wake them up to start acting more careful to their environment? Perhaps, but I doubt it as audiences remarks afterwards were “Wow I never thought that traveling had so many bad consequences”, “Things are pretty bad, yea” and we are all 殺手(killers). Bad indeed, and what’s worse apparently, is that people will keep traveling and will not take anything concrete away from the film.

The film, while in its good nature clearly brought attention to an important issue, and attempted to bring awareness. However, it actually just brought awareness to the fact that we are not aware of something that needs awareness, of which the film would like to address but didn’t really…

The film could have outlined practical measures for what Taiwanese could do as citizens of their homeland to prevent these “crises” from exacerbating even more. What about outlining some steps, such as in An Inconvenient Truth? Ok, perhaps not the best movie ever made, but it had some practical points at the end. Perhaps encouraging people to do more recycling; or give statistics on how many plastic cups are used each year to provide local citizens all the NT$30 (US$1) drinks that they consume every day at one of the thousands of bubble tea shops across the island? The plastic cup statistics could have really encouraged people to start thinking about using their own cups (which is allowed at those tea shops), which could have easily translated into less garbage for Taiwan. Or what about the tens of thousands of wooden chopsticks that are used every day? This could get people to start bringing their own utensils when they eat out, which happens for most Taiwanese on a daily basis. Why not give such statistics and more, and encourage people to do more “green thinking and living”???

No such actions were done and it felt like myself and others were being blamed for not being a socialist farmer in the countryside of rural Taiwan. Such a film should not leave for imagination to the viewers, as if it wants to help solve a problem, then it needs to provide concrete answers and not take a conservative and ambiguous approach.

Chi Po-lin could have really set forth clear paths as to how to improve the situation he is so passionate about exposing, but instead, fails to do so and doesn’t even accomplish the task of creating awareness, as most of the viewers were not sure what to be aware of other than the fact that they were killing Taiwan and should feel sorry for it. Basically, it made me ask “Why go to such great lengths to make people feel that their homeland is doomed and then provide no other advice other than using a couple of farm families as examples? Should we all try to form communes and be more socialist in our approach with this advice or what?”

To say that Beyond Beauty will raise awareness, or at least tangible awareness that citizens of Taiwan could dwell on to make a difference, is something that I think the film did not reach. Again, the film had a good motive and should be respected in its efforts for taking the guts to at least bring the subject to the table (as well as the fact that it’s the first aerial photography film to come out of Taiwan).

This film had A LOT of potential and tried to say a lot but in the end said very little. However, expect it to win multiple awards at various festivals in Taiwan as Taiwanese are quite adamant about supporting local films.


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