By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“On Happiness Road,” the animated debut feature film from Taiwanese director Hsin-Yin Sung, follows the flights of fancy from its main character, Hus-Chi Sung, known to everyone as Chi.
The grand prize winner in the feature film category at the 2018 Tokyo Anime Award Festival, the film goes through 40 years of Taiwanese history, centered around Chi.
As the film progresses, Chi gains and loses friends, loves and hates her parents, journeys through childhood through adulthood without ever becoming what her parents want her to become. Over the course of the story, from Chi’s girlhood to adulthood as an expat in America, both the daughter and her parents must cope with dashed expectations, and the tough but necessary acceptance of serious, sometimes maddening, flaws in the ones we love.
Director Sung asserted that her film is not an autobiography, although she did borrow some aspects from her own story. Like Chi, she’s long used to making the best out of bad situations.
“I was born in Shezidao in Taipei City, and I grew up in industrial Xinzhuang, a satellite city of Taipei,” Sung remembered. “The most memorable thing in my childhood was a really dirty large drainage ditch next to where I lived.
“I often played paper boats and paper airplanes around there. Even though it was quite dirty, they were part of the happy memories of my childhood.”
Sung attended film theory school in Kyoto, Japan, and later earned an additional degree from Columbia College of Chicago. She wrote for the “Liberty Times” in Taiwan and recalls with much pleasure shaking hands with director David Lynch, at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France.
When asked to compare her Japanese education with her American one, she remarked, “Japanese [culture] emphasizes details, they place importance on simple beauty and emotions. Americans take pride in their independence and aggressive self-promotion.”
One interesting element for Westerners, and something true to Sung’s own experience, is how several generations of Taiwanese kids grew up watching Japanese anime TV programs, a practice that continues today.
Chi and her friends rush home, or rush inside from playing outside, to catch the latest episodes of “Candy Candy” and “Gatchaman,” both popular in the early-to-mid 1970s. The kids use their vivid imaginations (which they’ll eventually, except for Chi, lose as they age) to turn themselves into “Gatchaman”-style superheroes, flying between buildings.
The narrative, for all its whimsy, also examines serious problems in Taiwanese society during the years of martial law (1949–1987), including censorship, political arrests, and torture.
Closer to Chi’s own childhood experience, she’s shut out of the “cram school” held alongside regular classes, because her parents, who struggle with money, haven’t paid the required fees. And “cram school,” at that time at least, consisted of the kids with money getting all the questions, and all the answers, to all the important exams.
Sung used her Taiwan connections to secure well-known voice talent for the film:. “I cast them because their personality fit the characters,” Sung explained. Chi herself is voiced by popular actress Lun-mei Gwei, who starred in “Girlfriend, Boyfriend,” a live-action film set, like “On Happiness Road,” during the martial law years.
For the role of Chi’s cousin, and occasional mentor, Sung recruited Te-sheng Wei, better known as a film director. Wei directed, wrote, and co-produced “Cape No. 7,” a romantic musical drama, currently the highest-grossing Taiwan-produced film in the country’s history, and second-highest grossing film overall behind 1997’s “Titanic.”
Asked about future projects, Sung allowed that she’ll probably be working in live-action next, but she’s not quite sure yet where to go from her animated feature.
“I’m working on a couple stories: Drama, thriller, and science fiction,” she concluded. “Haven’t decided which one to make.
“The only thing I’m pretty sure of, is that the protagonists all are female.”
“On Happiness Road” shows Saturday, Oct. 6, noon, at the SIFF Cinema Uptown, 511 Queen Anne Avenue North, as a presentation of the Taiwanese American Professionals, Seattle chapter (TAP-Seattle). A Q&A session with director Hsin-Yin Sung follows the film. For prices and additional information, visit siff.net/year-round-cinema/on-happiness-road.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.