Three men venture 650km to the Arctic Circle in 21 days. Extreme weather conditions cause limb-threatening frostbite and life-threatening dehydration and hypothermia. Polar bears pose a genuine threat.
Beyond the Arctic (征服北極), veteran documentary director Yang Li-chou’s (楊力州) latest work, follows a trio of Taiwanese athletes on their grueling trek to the Magnetic North Pole as part of the 2008 Polar Challenge, an international race that takes place between mid-April and mid-May each year.
Known for his story-driven approach to documentary filmmaking, eloquently demonstrated in the Golden Horse-winning My Football Summer (奇蹟的夏天), Yang opens the film by introducing the team members: renowned ultra-marathon runner Kevin Lin (林義傑); Albert Liu (劉柏園), CEO of online games company Gamania Digital Entertainment (遊戲橘子); and college student Jason Chen (陳彥博).
For the following 75 minutes, the documentary tracks the trio’s preparation and training in Resolute Bay, Canada, and their exhausting and perilous trudge under the midnight sun, filled with humorous, sometimes hilarious moments as the trekkers exchange jokes, dance Bollywood-style and sing Taiwanese tunes to keep their spirits up and distract themselves from the physical and mental torments they endure.
The climax of the film involves a polar bear raiding another team’s tent, startling a Frenchman and two Chinese men out of their sleep. Yang juxtaposes footage of a European hunter (who was not involved in the race) showing off the hide of a polar bear he had just killed, against video of the Franco-Chinese team successfully scaring off the intimidating predator, just a stone’s throw away, simply by shouting and yelling at it.
Beyond the Arctic (征服北極獸)
DIRECTED BY: Yang Li-chou (楊力州)
STARRING: Kevin Lin (林義傑) as himself, Albert Liu (劉柏園) as himself, Jason Chen (陳彥博) as himself
LANGUAGE: in Mandarin and Taiwanese with Chinese and English subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 75 MINUTES
TAIWAN RELEASE: TODAY
The athletes’ endeavors are undoubtedly inspiring and commendable. The documentary, however, fails to fully convey the drama of the expedition. It is understandable that severe weather and treacherous terrain can impose insurmountable restrictions on filmmaking. Yet, with the focus on the trio’s morale-boosting sessions through lighthearted frolics and horseplay, director Yang misses a rare opportunity to explore the surrounding wilderness, its inhabitants and the human struggle to overcome its challenges. Substantial issues such as wildlife conservation and the predicament faced by Taiwanese athletes, who generally receive virtually no government support, grants or sponsorship but still try to make a career out of their professions, are only touched upon in the film.