On Happiness Road
pays tribute to the island of Taiwan with a vivid and largely accessible panorama of its unique history and culture. The film covers a period from the 1970s to the current day, with Taiwan’s turbulent history serving as background for the relatively mundane story of Lin Shu-chi. In the present, Chi arrives in Taiwan from her current home in America to attend the funeral of her beloved Grandma. Chi is also facing personal crises: Her marriage to an American is floundering, and she has decisions to make about having a family. Returning to her parents’ apartment on Happiness Road, Chi slowly comes to realize more about herself and where she truly considers home.
Animated with quirky grace, the film shifts from the present day to flashbacks to occasional flights of fancy with a speed that may leave viewers disoriented. The film often illustrates Chi’s childhood dreams and juxtaposes them with her adult imagination, showing how she’s matured or grown. Originally respectful of authority (she was born the day Taiwan president Chiang Kai-shek died, and considered him a hero), Chi grows disillusioned when her cousin Wen is tortured for reading banned books. As a college student, she gets involved in activism over the objections of her parents, who simply want her to study hard and make money. But Chi’s activism ultimately doesn’t define her and is just another step on her winding path.
Politics are integral to Taiwan life, given the territory’s shifting government and its murky relationship with China. On Happiness Road
reflects that difficult existence with copious political references, many of which might not register with international audiences. Still, writer-director Sung Hsin Yin (whose own experiences inspired Chi’s) finds ways to connect the material to less familiar audiences. For example, Chi’s mother is enamored of every president when they’re elected, but tired of them when they leave office, which is something many electorates can relate to. Overall, the film is largely apolitical. Taiwan’s harrowing politics are accounted for but they’re really just there, as they would be for any Taiwan person who lives day-to-day.
On Happiness Road
succeeds easily on its universal themes. Self-determination, living up to parental expectations, realizing the value of familial love – these are subjects that anyone can identify with. Taiwan’s unique diversity is also on display. Chi has aboriginal lineage thanks to Grandma being a full-blooded Taiwanese, which largely informs Grandma’s colorful character. Chi’s childhood friends are also enjoyable; one is a half-Caucasian whose father was a US pilot, while another is a school dropout who works as a spirit medium to help out his family. These characters are actually a bit underused. They’re fun and offer unique perspectives, but they inevitably cede their spotlight to Chi and her more middle-class issues.
The lively designs and deceptively limited animation add personality. The characters lack fluidity of movement but the images don’t – so when the grounded characters morph into the dream-like figures of Chi’s imagination, the story takes on a stirring lyricism. At times, On Happiness Road
perhaps spends too much time reflecting on the past, substituting a historical through-line for a more immediate personal one. Overall, though, the film evokes a gentle humanity and warmth that are hard to dislike. This is a winning portrait of Taiwan that’s colorful and educational, a subtle introspection on the Taiwanese experience, and a universal story of how people everywhere are in many ways the same. No matter what one takes from it, On Happiness Road
has much to offer.
Sung Hsin Yin
Sung Hsin Yin was born in Taipei, Taiwan, but received her higher education overseas. After studying Film Theory at Kyoto University in Japan, she graduated with a Master’s Degree in Film from Columbia College of Chicago. Sung found her way into filmmaking after years in multiple odd jobs, and earned early acclaim and international festival exposure with her live-action short films. After winning the Best Animation Award at the 2013 Taipei Film Festival for her 13-minute short film On Happiness Road
, Sung expanded the story of little Chi and her family into a full feature-length animated film. Sung is also working on her live-action feature debut, titled Love Is a Bitch