Cancer Survivor Opens Senses to Taiwan’s Beauty
Having lost hearing in one ear, normal sight in one eye and nearly losing his life 15 years ago to brain cancer, Taiwan’s leading 3D film director Charlie Chu unexpectedly found his mission in life.
Cancer Survivor Opens Senses to Taiwan’s BeautyBy Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 633 )
Hard drives are strewn all over desks and the floor of a small 25-square-foot room in director Charlie Chu’s office. The total capacity of the drives is said to exceed 400 terabytes, comprising Taiwan’s largest database of 3D imagery.
It represents the accumulation of nearly a decade of shooting at the extreme ends of Taiwan by Chu and his crew, filled not only with awe-inspiring natural beauty, but also the stories of over 100 traditional artisans aptly described as “living treasures.” Late this year, Chu will release Formosa 3D (美力台灣3D), the first 3D documentary in Taiwanese history. Author Hsiao Yeh, who provided the voiceover narration, describes Chu as “naïve, committed, and caring” enough to dedicate himself entirely to developing 3D technology and promoting Taiwan’s beauty.
Known across the industry as “Taiwan’s leading 3D director,” Chu has explored 3D filmmaking techniques leveraging his own independent research and development efforts. In 2013, Chu’s documentary 3D Taiwan took Creative Arts Award honors alongside Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, not only demonstrating that Taiwan’s 3D filmmaking capabilities had reached international caliber, but had taken Taiwan’s beauty to the world stage.
“Many people ask me, you really love Taiwan, don’t you? Actually, I spend so much money and so much time shooting and chronicling, not because I love Taiwan so much as because I love New Taiwan Dollars,” quips the goateed Chu, who gestures and jokes as he talks. Immediately after those words leave his lips, Chu once again gets serious, saying everyone brings a different expertise to the table and can give back to society in different ways. All he wants is to do something to the best of his professional abilities.
Half Dead 15 Years Ago
One would never notice without being first told that the exceptional director, whose eyes light up whenever discussing shooting techniques, lost hearing in one ear and normal vision in one eye, and suffered mild facial paralysis due to a brain tumor years ago.
“Over the 15 years since the operation in 2002, it’s like my life has been on fast-forward. Knowing how fickle and impermanent life is, you have to seize the moment. I had no idea that at the age of 35 such a large tumor would be discovered in my body, and I never would have believed that at age 45 I’d stand in Hollywood clutching such a big award. Even less could I have believed that this year, at the age of 50, I would release the feature-length The Powerful Beauty of Taiwan 3D movie,” Chu relates, adding that none of this was planned, but such is the beauty of life, and we must learn to make the best of unexpected circumstances.
The brain tumor discovered in 2002 not only put Chu’s life into fast-forward, it flipped it over from Side A to Side B.
Chu honed his directing, editing, production, and cinematography skills in Taiwan’s television industry. A graduate of Keelung Commercial Junior College in electrical engineering, his second job was as a photo assistant. His third day on the job found him on the set of the prime time drama, The Postman Rings Again, which he found so humorous he decided right then and there that he wanted to keep working in an industry dedicated to producing happiness.
After eight months of dedication as an assistant, he moved up to full-fledged cinematographer, working on a series of variety shows like Home Run, Winning, and Golden Hit Parade, and shooting music videos for popular artists of the day like Wakin (Emil) Chau, the late Anita Mui, and Chang Ching-fang.
Demonstrating strong acumen for developing storylines, elevating standards, and helping spark a trend in music video love stories, Chu was in great demand, shooting over a thousand music videos and nearly 10,000 karaoke videos. At one time, seemingly every video on the screens at KTVs across Taiwan was his handiwork, propelling him from a poor boy from a Keelung fishing village to the hottest music video director in the land.
Suffering from severe ringing in the ears in 2002, examinations revealed that Chu had a fist-sized brain tumor covering six neural pathways of the left half of his brain. Doctors said that if it was not operated on immediately, he would only have six months to live.
“Coming home after the surgery, walking slowly and head fully shaved, I took my little girl for a walk. She was only in nursery school then, running along happily. I could only think, this is awful – what’s going to happen to her in the future?” Unable to hear, his vision impaired, and drooling uncontrollably, Chu was torn up with fear for the future of his wife and three daughters. His mind kept turning over and over, if he were unable to pull through, what could he leave for them?
Determined to Establish a Film Repository
Chu thought, if musicians can leave behind valuable royalty rights, then how can image rights be used? “I started out shooting on the theme of ‘Taiwan’ in 2005 according to the concept of a database or library, as you can borrow all sorts of materials from a library,” Chu relates.
“With a program production, you try to minimize costs and save money, so you don’t mind using digital videotape, for instance. But if you’re a library, you should use the highest quality specifications available at the time.”
“I started getting ready in 2004, and when Sony came out with an HD video camera, I rented one to go out and shoot Taiwan.” In the quest for the best picture quality, Chu began looking into 3D technology as early as 2008, and started shooting 3D in 4K resolution in 2013. His works Four Seasons of Taiwan and Postcards from Taiwan were broadcasted by Taiwan Public Television Service (PTS), and his Clownfish was an early attempt to make a movie in 3D using real people.
Back in his days making music videos, Chu shot countless beautiful settings in Taiwan and all over the world. “I want to make Taiwan my subject because after growing up in Keelung, I noticed how the sea vistas have changed the most; the beach I knew as a child is gone. The Su-Hua Highway I shot in the first year is completely different from the Su-Hua Highway today. It was still so beautiful then, and now that’s gone,” he laments.
Chu once spent three years patiently waiting to capture a sequence of tens of thousands of purple cow butterflies. Disgust with how humanity treats the oceans like a landfill made him determined to shoot scenes of the unspoiled deep emerald sea. Shooting in 3D is expensive and time consuming, but Taiwan’s beauty is truly stunning, and he is committed to conveying the power of that beauty.
Three years ago, the man that professed his love of New Taiwan Dollars embarked upon his Powerful Beauty of Taiwan Mobile 3D Cinema Truck program. After selling the studio he worked in for years, he invested over NT$3 million to retrofit a van into a Transformer-like multi-purpose vehicle capable of traveling from Taiwan’s shores to her highest peaks and showing 3D movies wherever it went. He spent an additional NT$7 million on personnel salaries and other expenses to edit four films, which he took directly to show children in remote villages around the island.
Remote Elementary School Movie Tour
“This is something my wife and I had planned to do after we retired. Since we had shot so much HD footage, we thought we could drive a van to remote villages for movie showings, fun traveling, and sharing the films with children,” says the filmmaker. But reminded by the brain tumor and surgery of the preciousness of life, he realized his dream sooner, helping children living in the mountains to see the grandeur of Taiwan’s azure seas, and kids in coastal areas to witness the majesty of her mountains.
The Mobile 3D Cinema Truck has traveled to primary schools in 1,060 remote villages around Taiwan, showing films to over 100,000 children.
“But there are still over 800 remote primary schools we haven’t visited yet,” exclaims Chu.
Chu hated being photographed after his surgery 15 years ago. That is, “Until three years ago, on a Mobile 3D Cinema Truck stop, when I held a kid in my arms with a crooked smile on my face, looking so contented. That image looks so beautiful to me, even though I actually look pretty ugly in it. But ever since then, I don’t mind being photographed,” he says.
For Charlie Chu, a heart beating with passion is what life is all about.
Translated from the Chinese article by David Toman