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  Whale Island One For The Water
Year: 2020
Director: Huang Chia-Chun
Stars: Liao Hung-Chi, Ray Chin
Genre: DocumentaryBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Taiwan is an island nation, but it has been observed that although it is surrounded by water and all the myriad wildlife that live in it, the population have never been wholly comfortable with the seas. According to environmentalist Liao Hung-Chi, his fellow Taiwanese are taught from a young age to be wary of the ocean since it has demonstrated its unpredictability and power over the centuries, a power that can destroy with no real warning. Therefore he understands why they would need to be guided to accepting the seas, which is why he stages boat tours where tourists from the island can learn about the whales and dolphins that can be seen at some proximity from the vessel. However, he feels he wants to do more...

Liao is not the only chap we follow here, as there is also Ray Chin, a photographer who made it his business to snap pictures of ocean life with his underwater cameras, though when director Huang Chia-Chun catches up with him, he seems to be suffering a crisis of confidence that has him pondering whether he really should go back to the sea when instead he can spend time with his two young sons and watch them grow up: where should his loyalties lie? Actually, he does a bit of lying himself, not telling untruths, but lying about his house; quite why he was happy to be filmed sprawled out on the bed or sofa dozing is a mystery, and you may be considering what it has to do with the environmental message you were expecting when you sat down to watch this.

Ecology is certainly a part of this, but so is an exploration of the existences of Liao and Chin, and there's the problem. While the lifestyles of these two gentlemen are low level interesting for an insight into the typical days of a Taiwanese male, most audiences would be more interested in the water-based adventures, and frankly a lot of the domestic affairs come over as padding rather than vital to the narrative Huang was spinning. That was concerning itself with the health of the sea life, specifically the dolphins and certain types of whale (mostly humpback), though even here there were issues as it was all very well to see if they could capture some excellent footage of the animals, but where does promoting their wellbeing end and being actively intrusive begin? Not for nothing does Chin get swatted by a humpback fin halfway through the movie.

Presumably this made up his mind there were better ways he could be spending his time, but Liao is more like a man obsessed, neglecting his cancer survivor daughter and creating a raft of square barrels all fixed together to float on - it is attached by a rope to a boat, but you do worry it looks a flimsy construction and is actually pretty dangerous to be taking an ocean voyage on. So one of these men is intrusive and motiveless by turns, and the other is reckless with his own safety in pursuit of whatever he is trying to prove in his whale excursions. There are scenes where he is teaching the tourists on a day cruise, or giving lectures to students and interested parties, but what he was up to when out on the waves himself is difficult to fathom other than some goal he was aiming for that he did not convey very well on the documentary. Where it genuinely scored was with the absorbing footage of the seas and their wildlife; there's a reason marine docs are popular, and that's because they are fascinating to watch for those who do not ordinarily get close to the bodies of water around the globe, and Whale Island offered plenty of fine shots any nature documentarian would be content with. Yet there was a sense of unnecessary danger, too, another aspect that prevented the viewer from completely committing to it.

[This is showing as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh 2021. Click here to visit the website.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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