Film on New Zealand father’s search for son in Taiwan hits theaters

Phil Tchernegovski (right) is pictured with a local resident who helped in the search for his son. Photo courtesy of GrX
Phil Tchernegovski (right) is pictured with a local resident who helped in the search for his son. Photo courtesy of GrX

An award-winning documentary that retraces the footsteps of a man from New Zealand who searched for his missing son in Taiwan officially opened in theaters across Taiwan on Friday.

Titled “Phil’s Journey,” the film by Taiwanese director Chen Yeong-rury (陳勇瑞) chronicles the experiences of New Zealand sculptor Phil Tchernegovski, who lost contact with his son Reuben in 1998 after the son disappeared during a solo backpacking trip in the Alishan area.

It retraces the steps the father took to find his son on six trips to Taiwan between 1998 and 2002 and the affinity he developed for Taiwan and its people during that time even though his son was never located.

Since its completion, the documentary has been screened at several film festivals and won multiple awards, including a Best Asian Film Award at the International World Film Awards and Best Documentary at the 7th Art Independent International Film Festival and Port Blair International Film Festival.

For the director, it was a labor of love that took four years to film and complete, though it was inspired by some reading on a trip in 2012.

According to Chen, he picked up a book for his flight called “15 Asteroids (十五顆小行星),” a collection of 15 stories written in 2011 by Liu Ka-shiang (劉克襄), who is now the chairman of the Central News Agency.

The first story, which was about Tchernegovski, brought him to tears on the plane and left him determined to put the story on the big screen, Chen said in an interview with CNA.

He was unable to get in touch with the New Zealander to launch the project, however, until seeing Liu at an event.

Liu and Taiwanese expats in New Zealand then helped him locate Tchernegovski, who initially questioned Chen’s motivation for wanting to document his story.

“Although Mr. Phil had already been interviewed by a lot of media, he asked me right off the bat why I wanted to make a documentary,” Chen said.

“I told him I intended to visualize the beauty of fatherly love, to which he responded that what he did was nothing and that any father would have done the same. I also told him that I wanted to document the kindness of the Taiwanese people, and that he immediately agreed to.”

Chen said he quickly realized that virtual interviews were inadequate for his purposes, so he traveled to New Zealand with his wife for their 20th anniversary in 2017 to advance the project.

He also flew Tchernegovski to Taiwan to have him revisit his footsteps and the people who helped him during his missions to find his son, whose last known whereabouts were between the Alishan National Forest Recreation Area and the Alishan Forest Railway’s Mianyue Station further up in the mountains.

Tchernegovski was able to meet up with the Indigenous Tsou people from Alishan Township’s Fongshan and Laiji Villages who had helped him search the mountain area years ago and tried to counsel him to let go of his son at the time.

The help and support he received inspired him to pen the book “Mountain of the Beautiful Moon,” published in Chinese in early 2015, in which he talked about his love for Taiwan and its people, a feeling that still remains.

The documentary shows Tchernegovski greeting Alishan like he would his own child, feeling somewhat relieved that his son could at least come to rest in a beautiful land.