There has been no press on Immortal Life (不滅之光) except for a few Chinese-language Christian publications, which is still surprising despite the main subject, Lee Chun-sheng (李春生), having been a devout Christian for his adult life. Lee financed the construction of several Presbyterian churches in Taipei and mandated that all his descendants follow the religion through his 45-article “family constitution,” but his significance to Taiwan reaches way beyond his faith.
Born in Xiamen in 1838 and arriving in Taiwan at the age of 30, Lee learned English by attending church and became a key player in developing Taiwan’s tea industry in the Dadaocheng (大稻埕) area. He imported 3,000 tea plants from China, branded it Formosa Oolong Tea and was among the first to export the product to the West. Combined with his kerosene business, Lee became one of the richest men in Taiwan.
Lee was also a prolific writer and philosopher who often explored the relationship between Chinese and Western thought, especially relating to religion. It’s encouraging that more Taiwanese history productions are appearing in recent years, despite mass audiences still preferring mainstream and Western productions.
Photo courtesy of atmovies.com.tw
Immortal Life is only showing in one theater in Taipei, presumably for churchgoing audiences, but as a history enthusiast I wanted to see if there’s anything for the general viewer. It does get slightly preachy near the end and the soundtrack of uplifting orchestral music and piano hymns can get annoying — especially when it’s louder than the person speaking — but in general it provides a fairly nuanced picture of Lee’s career and ideals.
Christianity defined much of Lee’s life ever since he was baptized as a teenager, so that’s an integral part of the film, and while it’s a fine balance between preaching and presenting, the narration doesn’t come off as too overbearing.
This documentary is a production by Spring Film (春暉映像), which some may recognize as the 32-year-old distributor that brought to Taiwan now-legendary Hollywood flicks such as When Harry Met Sally, The Shawshank Redemption and The Fifth Element. For the past decade, it has invested in several local productions and also created original content, mostly documentaries. It’s unreasonable to compare a local history documentary to an American blockbuster, but Immortal Life could have taken a cue from Hollywood’s ability to entertain.
The problem is that there really isn’t a coherent narrative, while the style and formatting follows more of an educational video or television history special than a feature documentary. For starters, the film is divided into dry textbook-like chapters titled “Lee Chun-sheng’s early life,” “Lee Chun-sheng’s writings and philosophy,” and so on, and while there are some live scenes of the crew visiting Lee’s birthplace and tea farms in China with his descendants, most of it relies on old photos and talking heads.
Original animation and old photos liven things up, and while they aren’t particularly stunning, the film could have benefited from more of them.
There are plenty of angles the director could have pursued to tell a more compelling story. For example, Lee’s descendants are featured in the film, and an interesting take would have been to focus on a few of them following their ancestors’ footsteps, while having them demonstrate how Lee lives on, five or six generations later, through the “family constitution” that continues to influence their lives and spirituality. That is what truly makes Lee immortal as the film title suggests. Instead, this constitution is printed in its entirety — all 45 articles — in a mind-numbing sequence that lasted far too long.
A recurring problem with these lower-budget local documentaries is that more often than not, there are no English subtitles. While this keeps costs down, it also limits audience reach. It cannot be said enough that Taiwan needs all the exposure it can get — and surely foreign Christians would be drawn to this documentary even if they have no prior interest in Taiwanese culture and history.
Immortal Life 不滅之光
Directed By: Jacky Kong (孔繁芸)
Running Time:75 Minutes
Languages: Mandarin and Taiwanese with Chinese subtitles
Taiwan Release:In theaters
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