What lies beneath nature's beauty

What lies beneath nature's beauty
Stunning aerial views of the 2,408m-high Qingshui Mountain (above) in Hualien, slashed by a highway to accommodate visitors eager to view the scenery, and the Dahan Creek, which has been polluted by heavy metals such as copper and zinc.

LETTER FROM TAIPEI

It was the documentary that left Taiwan crying.

Walking out of cinema theatres, they sniffled - ordinary viewers, celebrities and even the premier's wife.

Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above begins like a polished ad for the Taiwan tourism agency.

Thanks to the helicopter-hoisted camera, one soars across the island, looking down on its emerald mountains and sapphire seas and lakes.

There is the magnificent Central Mountain Range, wearing caps of snow over green frocks. Yonder is the Jiaming Lake, or the Angel's Tear, glistening like a teardrop in the middle of a plateau.

But like a horror film, it goes on to relentlessly chronicle how development - guesthouses teetering on hilltops, fish farms voraciously colonising the south-west coast, factories discharging chemical waste and turning rivers orange - is inflicting blows on the land and sea, resulting in landslides, flooding and an island that is sinking ever deeper every year.

Taiwan has lost 1,000 sq km of its land - 3 per cent of its total land area. Even the dead are not spared - graves have been submerged, the narrator tells you. "Our ancestors have gone from land burial to sea burial."

The emotional pull of a combination of stunning aerial photography and a chilling message of how Taiwanese themselves are culpable for the environmental damage to their home has made Beyond Beauty Taiwan's highest-grossing documentary ever.

One in every 23 Taiwanese bought tickets to see it during a three-month commercial run from November, bringing in more than NT$200 million (S$8 million) at the box office. A series of charity screenings in rural areas are ongoing.

It unleashed a bout of soul-searching in the local media and cyberspace, as people spoke of how they were changing their everyday habits while urging the government to take steps.

It forced the Cabinet to convene a task force on environmental issues. Thus far, it has ordered a semiconductor company - featured in the documentary - to shut down several assembly lines at a plant in Kaohsiung after it was found to have dumped toxic waste water into a river. It has also cracked down on illegally constructed guesthouses.

Beyond Beauty, which won the Best Documentary award at last year's Golden Horse Awards, Taiwan's film awards ceremony, even featured in last month's historic cross-strait talks, the first official meeting between Taiwan and China. Taiwan's cross-strait affairs official Wang Yu-chi urged his mainland counterpart Zhang Zhijun to watch Beyond Beauty to "understand Taiwan better".

The man behind it, Chi Po-lin, 49, tells The Sunday Times the overwhelming reaction - "way beyond expectations" - reflects what he believes to be a turning point for Taiwanese to become more environmentally conscious.

It also coincides with an ever-growing sense of self-identity, stoked by ambivalence over increasing integration with China. "We Taiwanese are very vocal about how much we 'love Taiwan' - and it's not just about loving the people, but loving our land."

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