Friday, July 06, 2018

NYAFF ’18: On Happiness Road

You could say Lin Shu-chi came of age with her country. She was a student democracy activist during the period of martial law, but she expatriated to America just when democratic reforms took root. Having returned home for her grandmother’s funeral, Lin is not sure what she now thinks of herself or Taiwan in Sung Hsin-yin’s wistful animated family drama, On Happiness Road (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Lin’s family still lives at 168 Happiness Road. It sounds precious, but it has always been a bustling working-class neighborhood. During her early childhood years, Taiwan is still a rather poor and isolated country. In fact, she has quite a fateful birthdate: April 5, 1975, the day Chiang Kai-shek died.

As you might expect, there are not a lot of blonde little girls in Lin’s class, which makes it quite intimidating for Betty Huang. However, Lin befriends the bullied blonde when she needs it most. In fact, their friendship, renewed after Lin’s return to Taiwan, is unquestionably one of the most endearing aspects of the film. She also has quite a special relationship with her aboriginal grandmother, who continues to offer sage tough love advice, even after her death.

Sung gets the balance of bitter and sweet just about right in Happiness, while still staying true to the messiness of life. Lin makes all kinds of mistakes and has plenty of regrets, but it is easy for us to understand how she got where she is (even if she’s rather confused about it herself). Her relationships with her parents and aunts are realistically complicated, but her friendship with Huang is downright redemptive.

Viewers also get a keen sense of the Happiness Road neighborhood and the tenor of each era Lin lives through. Sung manages to integrate quite a bit of Taiwanese history into the film, in ways that always feel organic. Arguably, Sung’s only missteps are Lin’s dreams and reveries, which somewhat overdo the trippy flights of fancy in such and emotionally grounded film, but that is really a minor mistake.

Gwei Lun-mei gives a terrific vocal performance as the adult Lin, who happens to bear some resemblance to the Taiwanese superstar. Sung’s animation is also warm and nostalgic, in the right kind of way. Viewers might expect a predictable narrative arc, but Sung constantly surprises us with unexpected tragedies and poignant references back to her childhood. It is a lovely little film that real people anywhere can relate to. Very highly recommended, On Happiness Road screens Sunday (7/8) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.