Blind pianist stars on big screen

IN THE LIMELIGHT::Acting has boosted Huang Yu-siang’s confidence and helped to make him a household name, who is now frequently approached in the street by eager fans

By Amber Wang  /  AFP, TAIPEI

Fri, Nov 23, 2012 - Page 5

Huang Yu-siang (黃裕翔) was born with a gift and a devastating disability. He has a huge talent for music, but he is blind. His story has become a movie that has captivated audiences nationwide.

The film, Touch of the Light (逆光飛翔), marks a double triumph for the 25-year-old. First he overcame overwhelming odds by becoming a successful pianist in real life. Then he beat the odds once more by playing himself on the big screen.

“I was surprised by the warm reactions at home and abroad. Many people told me they were encouraged by the film to persist in their dreams,” Huang said in an interview.

His musical gift was discovered at the age of two when he could play on the piano songs he had heard only once. He went on to win many competitions and became the first blind person in Taiwan to obtain a bachelor’s degree in music, majoring in piano.

His story was made into a short film in 2008 by Taiwanese director Chang Jung-chi (張榮吉), which attracted the attention of acclaimed Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai (王家衛), who encouraged Chang to develop it into a full-length feature.

It has become the top-grossing movie in Taiwan since its September release, winning over fans including President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who praised its “subtle character portrayals” on his Facebook page.

The film has also been welcomed by civil groups that hope it will sharpen the focus on the plight of the nation’s blind.

While attitudes toward those with disabilities have improved in recent years, support groups and charities say society still has some way to go when it comes to equality.

Although facilities for the physically impaired can be impressive — wheelchair ramps abound in cities — the fact remains that blind people face drastically limited opportunities.

“The visually impaired are a minority among the minorities, as employers are more willing to hire the physically or hearing-impaired,” said Chiang Pei-fen, a spokeswoman for the Taiwan Foundation for the Blind.

“Most visually impaired people are still limited to working as masseurs or in telemarketing, and even though general workplace acceptance is improving, there is still a big gap between the number of job seekers and employers willing to hire them,” Chiang said.

Despite his gift, Huang himself has suffered discrimination. He said he was mocked by fellow students at school and was rejected by a junior-high school music program because he could not see the scores.

The real shock came when Huang left home to attend university, where he struggled to cope, with some classmates reluctant to accommodate him.

“It was a difficult time adjusting to a new environment, but I came to realize that I could not always sit back and wait for other people to come to me. I had to take the initiative to make friends,” he said.

His adjustment process and the friendships he eventually developed form the bulk of the plot in Touch of the Light.

The experience has transformed Huang from a “shy, introverted” boy who dared not respond to people greeting him, he said, to a celebrity musician and actor who mingles with fans and has traveled abroad to promote his work.

“Acting makes me feel more confident and I have become more outgoing and more active, reaching out to other people,” said Huang, who is now a household name and often approached in the street by fans.

Even though the movie is based on Huang’s experiences, Chang stressed that it is really about “pursuing dreams and breaking stereotypes.”

“In the movie the character’s friends are not overly protective and do no treat him like an ‘endangered species’ as I want to break the sentimental pitying or worrying for the blind or other minority groups,” Chang said.

Huang has been nominated for the Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker category that encompassed actors, directors and other aspects of filmaking at this month’s Golden Horse Film awards, regarded as the Chinese-language Academy Awards. Chang is vying for best new director.

However, the jury is still out on whether the film’s success will translate into greater acceptance of the blind.

“It draws attention to the challenges visually impaired people face, but it remains to be seen how much can be translated into actual support for them,” Chiang said.