The film begins years after Chi, raised by working-class parents in Taipei, has moved to New York City. When On Happiness Road opens, Chi’s marriage is falling apart, her home is in disarray, and she only ever sees her beloved family and childhood home in her dreams. Her current life in the United States—a place she once saw as a vibrant utopia promising political freedom and personal fulfillment—has essentially become a surreal nightmare, one in which she regularly loses her sense of who and where she is. It’s during these listless adult years when Chi receives news of her grandmother’s death, which spurs a trip back to Taiwan. Through a series of encounters with old friends, family, and her grandmother’s spirit, Chi finds herself reflecting on her past hopes and experiences, which weave in and out of her present-day reality.
On the surface, Sung’s playful, pastel-hued animations seem to undercut the seriousness of Chi’s recollections—many of which center on the protagonist’s grade-school years as Taiwan transitioned to democratic rule in the 1980s, after nearly 40 years of martial law under the dictator Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government (known as KMT). But this tonal contrast is precisely what gives Chi’s childhood memories so much weight. In one flashback scene, for instance, Chi and her classmates learn that Chiang formed his political resolve while observing fish swimming upstream. As the school children recite this propagandist passage from the KMT-written, standardized textbook, the fish surge up from the pages, whirling around a dazzled Chi. It’s a beautiful but unsettling sequence—one that demonstrates how state narratives can seem exciting, even romantic, to students who are just beginning to form their identity as citizens.
Early on in her childhood, Chi views her working-class father through a similarly magical lens: In one memory, Chi is rescued from a ferocious dog by her dad, who transforms into a heroic prince with a crown and fluttering cape. But this admiration is short-lived. As soon as Chi begins grade school, she’s subjected to the government’s efforts to promote Chinese nationalism. Not only does Chi’s teacher dismiss Taiwanese popular culture as “vulgar,” but she also threatens to fine students who speak Taiwanese Hokkien (the primary language at home) in the classroom instead of state-mandated Mandarin Chinese. Little Chi carries these lessons home, where she heckles her father’s poor Mandarin skills and later scoffs at his love for Taiwanese comedy. These scenes of her father’s fall from grace in Chi’s eyes are bitter but brief, reenacting the tragically ordinary ways in which children internalize oppression and direct it toward loved ones.
On Happiness Road tracks young Chi’s disassociation from her family’s working-class Taiwanese identity through the girl’s daydreams. When a wealthy classmate, the son of Taipei’s mayor, brags about an overseas trip to Disneyland, Chi sees fireworks bursting against a violet sky. When her Amerasian friend Betty describes the exploits of her absent father, a U.S. Air Force pilot (likely a Vietnam War veteran), a plane jets across Chi’s line of vision. Meanwhile, the tales recounted by Chi’s own family—anecdotes rooted in Taiwan’s rural Liugui district and the mountainous Hualien region—are no match for the allure of America. At home, when Chi asks her father for a story, he fondly tells her about a trip he took as a boy to see Taiwan’s first escalator. But Chi visualizes this momentous encounter with modern technology as a montage of simple, static images; her father, at the center of these bare landscapes, looks like a bobbing dolt of a boy. Unable to imagine this story with the same rich detail as those of her classmates, Chi responds, “What’s the big deal? I want stories about some place really far away, like America.”