Taiwan is an island, but its people have lost touch with the sea according to one of the protagonists of Huang Chia-chun’s contemplative documentary. Whale Island (男人與他的海, Nánrén Yú Tā de Hǎi) argues that fear has blinded the populace to the beauty which surrounds it, robbing them of their natural freedoms in a symbolic act of repression, but love of the ocean has also cost both of Huang’s protagonists dearly as they find themselves having to prioritise leaving those they love behind on land while they immerse themselves in the solitude of the sea. 

Oceanoggrapher Liao refuses to be constrained. “During your lifetime it’s inevitable for you to be restricted.” he admits, “restricted by society, restricted by reality, restricted by age, restricted by body.” Liao laments that if only people could learn to lose their fear of the water, something he feels has been deliberately cultivated as a means of oppression, everything would be better. For his own part, he fell in love with the sea for the sense solitude. As a young man with language difficulties he longed to escape other people, dreaming of becoming a lighthouse keeper or perhaps a forest ranger before getting to know some captains of fishing boats and getting a job as a fisherman. These days he acts as a tour guide, running scenic trips for tourists showcasing the wonder that exists just off shore with its spinning dolphins and visiting whales. 

Ray, meanwhile, is a wildlife photographer specialising in underwater shots of marine animals. As a father to two young sons, however, he finds himself conflicted, putting his work on the back burner knowing that to do it all out would mean being away from his family for long stretches of time but watching other photographers push further ahead by hopping the planet chasing the seasons. A few weeks a year he travels to Tonga where, unlike Taiwan, it’s permissible to swim alongside the whales but the work is not without danger as he proves after getting whacked on the leg by a curious whale’s tail and being stuck on the shore while he recuperates. Ironically, his boys fear the water, not because its destructive capacity but because of the very real anxiety that that will swallow him whole, that one day he’ll disappear beneath the waves and never resurface. 

Like Ray, Liao also found himself with a kind of choice only in his case it was no choice at all. His marriage eventually broke down because of his obsession with the sea, damaging his relationship with his young daughter which was not repaired until she was a grown woman suffering a health crisis. Yet the sea was not something he could sacrifice, dedicating his life to unlocking its mysteries while insisting on his own freedom, refusing to be constrained by conventional social codes or the will of others. 

Liao is convinced that if people turned to face the sea, lost their fear of it, then many things would change. Perhaps they would feel less oppressed, better able to express themselves and better equipped to live in freedom as he has learned to. According to the life philosophy communicated to him by a friend and mentor, the only way to survive a storm is to sail straight into it, turn the prow towards the source of the problem instead of trying to outrun it. Liao has done just that, attempting to raise awareness of the joys of the sea while fully aware of its concurrent dangers. Huang captures both the majesty of the Taiwanese landscape with its rolling seas, rocky inlets, and remote islands while marvelling at the prevalence of sea life found not so far off shore, neatly contrasting dolphins frolicking in the open seas with those forced to do tricks for tourists in nearby theme parks. A picturesque voyage along the island’s idyllic coastlines, Whale Island is a poignant reminder of the beauty that lies just over the horizon, constantly at the mercy of an ever changing world.


Whale Island streams in the US until Sept. 26 as part of the 11th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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