On Happiness Road (2017)

Review #1,558

Director:  Sung Hsin Yin
Cast:  Kwei Lun-Mei, Wei Te-Sheng, Chen Bor Jeng, Liao Hui-Jen
Plot:  On a trip home for her grandmother’s funeral, Chi stumbles into classmates and friends from years gone by, and begins to feel nostalgic about her childhood and starts to question her own supposed happiness.

Genre:  Animation / Drama / Comedy
Awards:  Premiered at Busan International Film Festival & Closing Film at Golden Horse Awards
Runtime:  109 mins
Rating:  PG (passed clean)
International Sales:  Ablaze Image

For someone like me, and probably just about anyone else who’s an animation fanatic, Hollywood 'cartoons' (I use this term with reservation) and Japanese anime are staples of the medium, consumed voraciously and sometimes celebrated wildly if a great one comes by.  As a Singaporean, it is especially exciting to see a Taiwanese animation, not least because it is made primarily in Mandarin and Hokkien, a dialect widely spoken or understood by a sizable group of older generation Chinese here.  Having grown up in a Teochew-speaking family (a dialect with far greater similarities to Hokkien than other dialects), I find On Happiness Road revitalising in what I would describe as a combination of ‘an aesthetic for the young with the verbosity of the old’.  

Written and directed by Sung Hsin Yin, On Happiness Road is an expansion of her 2013 short about a little girl who lives on the eponymous street with her family.  Starting school, she finds that she needs to speak Mandarin instead of her Taiwanese tongue to cope with her demanding teacher.  In the feature film, Sung expands the premise across space and time as an older, married Lin Shu-Chi (Gwei Lun-Mei) living in the States returns to her hometown in Taiwan for her grandmother’s funeral.  It is one of those films about the reminiscing of the past, and how that past has shaped one’s present.  A similar-themed, though far superior work, comes to mind—the late Isao Takahata’s underrated animation masterwork, Only Yesterday (1991).  

In Sung’s film, flashbacks are used generously if judiciously as the narrative tinkers between past and present.  The flashback sequences adopt a wide-eyed, child-like perspective on life, full of energy, curiosity and personality.  In fact, Sung uses fantastical elements of an adolescent’s wild imagination—be they manifest in dreams or nightmares—to capture the joys and anxieties of growing up.  To detractors, these sequences could be seen as kiddish and cartoon-like in its exaggeration of actions and colours.  

But as the film progresses, we begin to see the contrast as Sung weaves in the volatility of Taiwanese politics into the story, where the stark realities of the times form the socio-political backdrop.  A character, Wen, voiced by acclaimed Taiwanese director Wei Te-Sheng (Cape No. 7, 2008) plays an interesting role in the film, lighting the social activist flames in Shu-Chi.  The allusion, however subtle, to filmmaking as a socially-conscious art form, occasionally under the threat of politics, is not lost here.  But On Happiness Road is as apolitical as it gets insofar as it operates under the guise of childhood innocence and the simple, unadulterated resonances of life.  

Verdict:  By turns emotional and fantastical, this Taiwanese animation (in Mandarin and Hokkien) about family and home offers a wide-eyed, child-like perspective on growing up.




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