Movie Review: On Happiness Road (幸福路上)

Once upon a time, not so many years ago, Taiwan had a vibrant animation industry. For nearly 20 years, Taiwanese images were the mainstay of many American, European and even Japanese animated film productions. (I believe the early years of THE SIMPSONS was also done by Taiwanese animators before production moved to South Korea.) However, in the early 2000s, CGI animation came along and the island’s industry all but died.

ON HAPPINESS ROAD, by first-time writer-director Sung Hsin-yin (宋欣穎), reminds us how wonderful the craft of hand-drawn animation is and how talented the Taiwanese animators are while at the same time giving us a whirlwind lesson on modern Taiwanese history as seen through the eyes of a young woman who is searching for her own bit of happiness.

The story begins in the late 2000s. Lin Hsu-chi (voiced by Gwei Lun-mei/桂綸鎂) is a 30-something year old Taiwanese woman who is married and living in the US. When she receives word that her grandmother, a sagely aboriginal woman, has just died, she returns to her family’s home in the Xinzhuang suburb of Taipei to help out with the funeral arrangements. Once there, she finds her parents in a sad state. Her father (Chen Po-cheng), who always loved his lottery tickets, has lost his factory job and now spends his days gambling or lazing around while her mother (Jane Liao) rummages through the neighbourhood rubbish looking for things that can be sold for cash. For Chi, this certainly wasn’t how she expected life to turn out when she and her parents moved on to Happiness Road in the late ’70s. Back then, Taiwan was thought to be an island paradise, basking in the afterglow of the Kuomintang Party under the leadership of the late Chiang Kai-shek, who, we learn, died on the same day that Chi was born. Even though everyone was poor, roads were filled with potholes and the island’s rivers and streams overflowed with garbage, everyone was happy. With hard work, they were told, they could live the middle class dream.

And certainly that was the case for young Chi as the story flashes back to her childhood years, first at elementary school where she and her classmates would be punished if they speak that “inferior” local Taiwanese dialect, and later when she graduates university and decides to go to America to pursue a career. But happiness is illusory for Chi who now, as an adult, has deal with pregnancy, a failed marriage and an unfulfilling career. To make matters worse, her grandmother, who was always a source of wisdom and inspiration for her, has gone.

For a first-time filmmaker, Sung has done a great job on what certainly must have been a challenging effort. (She has previously made a couple live action shorts as well as an animated short, also entitled ON HAPPINESS ROAD, back in 2013.) Any points she wins with the animation, though, are lost with the story which covers far too much ground and may be too specific for audiences who aren’t familiar with Taiwan. Chi seems to be the Taiwanese version of Forrest Gump, always there when momentous events take place. We watch her as the island emerges from 40 years of authoritarian rule and martial law, she goes to school with the president’s daughter, she finds herself in the middle of the student protests, and she survives a devastating earthquake. It’s all a bit OTT, which is unfortunate. As Sung becomes more experienced, she’ll hopefully learn that less is more.

That aside, the story does offer some nice insights into happiness and where to find it, delivered by granny’s ghost. As Chi finally comes to understand, the road to happiness may have a few bumps in it but it can often be found close to home.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, May 31st at 8:30 am HK time!

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