On Happiness Road
110 minutes, Taiwan, 2017
By Arturo Arrerondo
Based on her Golden Horse Award-winning animated short, Sung Hsin Yin adapts that previous work of the same name into a feature-length coming of age animated film set against the backdrop of Taiwan’s tumultuous political history. Taking its title from the non-fictional address that protagonist Lin Shu Chi grows up on, and where writer/director Sung Hsin Yin spent her formative years, the film’s title evokes a dual meaning by using the phrase as an idiom akin to meaning “in search of happiness.” On Happiness Road is fully realized, multi-layered exploration of familial bonds, spiritual fulfillment, and what it means to belong. The production’s history was slightly more troubled than the character’s lives in the film, but luckily the result still manages to be a coherent, beautiful motion picture with a universal story that celebrates life and growing up.
Lin Shu Chi (Gwei Lun Mei as an adult, Bella Wu as a child) is an adult woman recently returned to Taiwan after moving to America with her husband. Chi’s struggle to find a sense of belonging is shared by her best friend Betty Chuang (Chia Hsiu Li as an adult, Peggy Huang as a child), who is a blonde, blue eyed, multiracial white-Asian girl whose mother works in Taichung; Betty and her mother are seemingly abandoned by Betty’s US Air Force father, and subsequently Betty is raised by a maternal cousin. Despite the shadow the era’s political turmoil will cast over Chi’s life, her Taiwanese aboriginal grandmother is a recurring protective figure throughout her childhood, and it is the grandmother’s death that prompts Chi’s return to Taiwan. The film immediately begins jumping back and forth through time, showcasing a creative use of magical realism, as adult Chi’s reminiscing shifts the timeline to when she was a child but also intersperses those moments with her fantastical daydreams and nightmares. She was born on 5 April 1975, the day Taiwanese dictator Chiang Kai Shek died. By this time, the White Terror is already underway after the 228 Incident, and the Kuomintang’s political persecution of dissidents, real and imagined, has been in full swing for 26 years at this point and would not end until Chi’s adolescence in the mid-1980s.
The 228 Incident was when mass protests began in Taipei and quickly broke out across Taiwan on 28 February 1947. At the time, Taiwan was a one-party state led by the Kuomintang, and the KMT responded to the protests by ordering a military crackdown which led to the state-sanctioned murders of an estimated 26,000 Taiwanese people. This was followed by the White Terror, which saw the KMT rule Taiwan with a 38-year martial law that provided a pretext for the KMT to imprison an estimated 140,000 Taiwanese and murder approximately 4,000 Taiwanese for criticizing the government. This political development is shown explicitly a few times, notably when Chi’s cousin Wen (Wei Te Sheng) is revealed to have been tortured by police due to his reading a banned book in school. Chi’s primary school also forbids the use of Taiwanese Hokkien dialect, enforcing Standard Mandarin under threat of expulsion.
More than anything, On Happiness Road is sincere, and that goes a long way for a film, in my view. What’s most remarkable is how deftly the film moves between past and present, as well as Chi’s and Betty’s perspectives. With a parade of colors and an incredibly fluid and shifting animation style that betrays the film’s limited budget (Gwei Lun Mei and Wei Te Sheng donated their voice talents to the film), On Happiness Road has a visual style at odds with its mostly downbeat plot. The film, however, never wallows and does well at balancing the tone with the upbeat characterizations of the protagonists. The music is usually cheerful, and a motif throughout the film is comfort friends and family provide, even if it takes some growing up or time away to realize it. The first question Chi asks her parents is, “What is happiness?” while her family is heading towards their new home on Happiness Road. We’re lucky enough to accompany her as she finds the answer.
Ratings: 5/5 stars