'On Happiness Road' ('Xing Fu Lu Shang'): Film Review | Filmart 2018
Taiwanese director Sung Hsin-yin's animated feature debut is an ambitious, affecting mix of history and nostalgia that avoids cheap sentimentality.
Focusing on a Taiwanese thirtysomething's bittersweet memories of her own rite of passage, On Happiness Road (Xing Fu Lu Shang) is at once an affecting ode to its director's youth, a tribute to old-school hand-drawn animation and a reflection of the sweeping social changes in Taiwan during the past three decades. It's an ambitious mix of nostalgia, aesthetics and history, and first-time feature filmmaker Sung Hsin-yin has delivered a film which is at times overwhelming — with its brimming emotions, myriad characters and allusion to landmark political events — to the point of distraction.
Still, the pic deserves so much more than the disappointing gross of $428,420 it has generated since its release in Taiwan on Jan. 5. Five years in the making and produced with a budget of around $2 million, Sung's feature is a labor of love which is pleasantly devoid of cheap sentimentality. Steering clear of the simplistic emotions that drives recent nostalgia-fests such as You Are the Apple of My Eye or Our Times, the journalist-turned-director seeks to question rather than reinforce the notions of happiness as represented by either so-called common sense and the popular culture it has spawned.
Referring to the name of the (fictional) Taipei street the protagonist grew up on, the wistfulness of the film's international title might be a bit misleading. Its original title could also be construed as "On the Road to Happiness," and Sung could easily have added a question mark at the end to highlight the film's reflexivity about the slippery nature of bliss. What it definitely isn't, according to this film, is romance, marriage and U.S. citizenship — a harsh truth which might have led to its underwhelming performance in Taiwanese cineplexes.
While Taiwan's mass audiences might have been lukewarm in embracing such a locally produced adult-oriented animation, Sung might find more joy on the festival circuit. With its resemblances to Isao Takahata's melancholic, hand-drawn animation — Only Yesterday comes to mind, as does Grave of the Fireflies — On Happiness Road was the winner of the grand prize at the Tokyo Anime Festival. After screenings at Busan and then back home at the Golden Horses, where it served as its closing film, Sung's feature is screening in the Hong Kong International Film Festival's animation section, with more of such berths to come.
It's perhaps telling that Sung has ordained her protagonist to be born on April 5, 1975, the very day Taiwan's authoritarian ruler Chiang Kai-shek died: Here, her trajectory is also that of an island which emerged out of a dictatorship, weathered political confrontations, embraced democracy and also confronted a myriad natural and human-made catastrophes.
But the film begins in the U.S. sometime in the early 2010s, with Chi (voiced by Gwai Lun-mei) learning of her grandmother's death. Returning home to Taipei, she discovers the sorry state of her parents. Her father (Chen Po-cheng) is wallowing in drink, gambling and lethargy, while her mother (Jane Liao) does multiple jobs and rummages rubbish to make money.
Perhaps unsurprising for a political science graduate whose formative years were defined by Taiwan's gradual change from a single-party, single-language state into a multi-party, multicultural society, Sung has shaped nearly each of her characters as the embodiment of a certain issue at hand. So there's Chi's fair-haired but Chinese-speaking classmate Betty (Penny Huang as a child, Li Chia-hsiu as an adult), a child born out of a U.S.-Taiwan relationship; there's her cousin Wen (Seediq Bale director Wei Te-sheng), whose political activism as a university student represents the idealist social movements which was, and still is, a driving force for social change in Taiwan.
Class and race also feature prominently in the film. The comical and then tragic life of Chi's buddy Cheng-an (Alan Hsu), a boy (and man) stuck in that neighborhood where nothing ever much happens, signals the struggles and content of the masses. The most interesting character in the film, however, is Chi's grandmother (Giwas Gigo), a partly aboriginal matriarch whose wry observations — seen both in flashbacks, but also as a "ghost" talking to the grown-up Chi in the present — combine nuggets of sagely wisdom but also leaves room for the viewer to reflect on how native populations were (and are) seen and treated as "savages" by society and the state.
There are many more different examples of this, with some very subtle (the "mainstreaming" of social and cultural values through the study of correct pronunciation of words related to modern commodities) and some a bit too contrived (the constant references to different presidents in flashbacks, with Chi being a classmate with one of them). While Taiwanese audiences will probably navigate all this just fine, international audiences without a proper knowledge of the island's history might lose their bearings.
Sung and his animators might also have relied too much on political personalities and events as markers for the settings in which different scenes take place. Here, a character is sometimes seen wearing the same kind of clothes in different eras, and also in reality and in dreams, which becomes a source of confusion for a film comprising multiple leaps backward and forward in time throughout its two-hour running time. For all its flaws, however, On Happiness Road's significance goes beyond its quality, and it is certainly a worthy heir to Taiwan's once-thriving and now-extinct animation film industry.
Production companies: Happiness Road Productions in a presentation with Ifilm and Kaohsiung Film Fund
Voice cast: Gwei Lun-mei, Chen Po-cheng, Jane Liao, Wei Te-sheng
Director-screenwriter: Sung Hsin-yin
Producer: Sylvia Feng
Executive producer: Jeffrey Chen
Animation directors: Huang Shih-ming, Chao Ta-wei
Music: Wen Tzu-chieh
Editing: Tsai Yann-shan, Nell Wang Yen-ni, Sung Hsin-yin
Casting: Lee Hsiu-luan
Sales: Ablaze Image
In Mandarin, Taiwanese and English