Film Review: The Endless Blue Reveals Its Undisturbed Beauty in ‘Whale Island’ 《男人与他的海》4 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
Oceanic literature author Liao Hung-Chi and underwater photographer Ray Chin lead the audience out to sea and into the water. They prompt the viewer to understand the sea and to think about the possibility that the ocean might become the lives and future of the Taiwanese people.
Director: Huang Chia-Chun
Runtime: 108 minutes
Packed with picturesque oceanscapes and an exceptionally soothing soundtrack, Whale Island 《男人与他的海》is an immensely relaxing experience accompanied by the slice-of-life of two Taiwanese who have dedicated their lives to the ocean.
While both of their stories are riveting, they mainly recall the unseen past, with the documentary itself bogged down by a lack of drama. Mileage will vary with prior investment into both men’s works and with the willingness to disconnect and drift together with the documentary.
Whale Island bounces between the escapades of author Liao Hung-Chi and Taiwan’s first professional underwater photographer Ray Chin. Liao sets out to conduct an experiment at sea while penning his next novel. Chin travels to Polynesian island Tonga to photograph humpback whales underwater.
The documentary looks to rekindle Taiwan’s love and appreciation for the sea. As Liao notes, despite being surrounded by the ocean, the Taiwanese have shirked away from the waters due to the island’s history, culture and cross-strait politics. Whale Island makes a grand and convincing case through its breathtaking visuals, but it does not hold back from exposing the difficulties that come with falling in love with the sea in Taiwan.
The passion emanating from both Liao and Chin are contagious. Liao, an award-winning maritime author, is softspoken but waxes lyrical about the peace found out in nature, and how the waters will continue to shape Taiwan’s future. His poetic cadence, paired with magnificent views of undisturbed nature, reaches for zen. On the other hand, Chin, an award-winning wildlife photographer, is far blunter with his words, admitting that he probably would have been more successful if he wasn’t a father.
Both men are unabashed about casting themselves in a less-than-flattering light. The candidness is initially disarming but eventually settles into being welcoming. Their separate journeys are pulled back from the same point of resistance: home. Both are torn between their calling out at sea and families unable to understand their passion. It’s within this tension and the pair’s bravery in acknowledging their faults that makes for several poignant moments.
These, however, are largely recalled memories. Both of their journeys out to sea are mostly smooth sailing. Skilful edits, cutting and transitioning at each plotline’s emotional apex, does liven up the experience but they still can’t substitute the sore lack of immediate drama. Whale Island often veers dangerously close to feeling like wallpaper, with little to no stakes to keep audiences going.
The documentary and its subjects’ fixation with nature does lead to countless magnificent reels of marine life in the wide-open ocean. Sunlight bounces off the endless blue to radiate an intoxicating warmth. Aerial shots of Taiwan’s coastline highlight its dazzling natural beauty. Footages of Chin’s trip underwater, bringing him face-to-fin with humpback whales, never stops being awe-inspiring. Accompanying the visuals is a tremendously relaxing soundtrack filled with soft plucks of the guitar and whooping harmonicas, destined to elicit nostalgia for a holiday you never had.
While bringing a group out to sea on his boat, Liao explains that the ocean looks black not because it’s dirty, but because it’s so clean that sunlight shines right through to the sea bed. This clarification could also apply to the documentary. Whale Island looks and sounds pristine but feels too clean and undisturbed to be an easy recommendation. The documentary sways at its own pace. But choose to cling onto it and the relaxing atmosphere is bound to melt the stress away.
Whale Island will be screening on Sunday, 2 May 2021, 5pm at the Oldham Theatre to a sold-out theatre as part of Singapore Chinese Film Festival 2021 (SCFF2021). The screening will be followed by a Q&A session with director Huang Chia-Chun. Do keep a lookout for future screening opportunities!
Whale Island is part of the festival’s Documentary Vision segment, focusing on a growing trend in Chinese cinema to capture socio-political and cultural landscapes through documentary lenses.
About Singapore Chinese Film Festival 2021
The 9th edition of the Singapore Chinese Film Festival returns with a broad selection of Chinese cinema from across Asia. Held from 30 April to 9 May, SCFF2021 will feature a mix of physical and digital screenings. For tickets and full details on the festival’s lineup, visit its official website https://scff.sg/