Time and again, traditional hand-drawn films have upended the family-friendly, CGI-filled, box-office-hit formula heralded by Pixar and Disney. Persepolis (2007), for instance, brings to life Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir about growing up during Iran’s bloody Islamic revolution. Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988) also draws from a true story, intricately illustrating the toll of mass conflict by focusing on two young siblings in Japan during the last months of World War II. Released in 2018, the Taiwanese film On Happiness Road, which won a Golden Horse for Best Animation Feature and is a contender for an Oscar nomination in the same category, is a new addition to this lineage of hand-drawn classics.
Following the works of Satrapi and Takahata, the writer and director Sung Hsin-yin’s debut feature film traces the recollections of its protagonist, Lin Shu-chi, over several decades of Taiwanese history. Given tense cross-straits relations and mainland China’s aggressive attempts at claiming self-governed Taiwan as its own, it’s little surprise that Sung lost investors over her movie’s historical specificity—for instance, its use of Taiwanese Hokkien dialogue alongside Mandarin Chinese. But while Sung is certainly dedicated to re-creating the details and textures of everyday life in Taiwan, spurring reflection among local audiences, the power of On Happiness Road also lies in its nuanced depiction of fantasy and memory, and how these dual forces can shape notions of family and cultural identity.
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.”
Even as the United States comes to represent the pinnacle of romance, freedom, and self-fulfillment for Chi, On Happiness Road is careful to juxtapose this fantasy with real life. When Betty gifts her a “Hisshey’s” (Hershey’s) bar, 8-year-old Chi takes a bite, transforms into a princess, and soars over a land adorned with neon lights, confetti, and Christmas trees. It’s like a Proustian moment in reverse, in which the taste of American chocolate launches her into a dream that eventually comes true. Nearly two decades later, when Chi finally arrives in New York, she meets her future husband, Tony, while standing in front of a Christmas tree; there’s almost a fairy-tale quality to the scene. But making small talk, Chi tells him that in Taiwan, “we didn’t celebrate Christmas, but we sure made a lot of Christmas ornaments.” Chi explains that stay-at-home mothers would assemble holiday trinkets for extra money—a subtle hint at how Taiwan’s rapid industrialization was fueled in part by American reliance on cheap labor. Now in the country of her dreams, she’s no longer a wide-eyed child dreaming about sweets.
When Chi eventually reunites with her family in Taiwan, On Happiness Road makes clear that this journey also doesn’t have the same enchanted sheen that her memories do. In Taipei, she struggles to communicate in Hokkien, and those in her neighborhood hardly recognize her. Worst of all, Chi is troubled to find that while she can afford a middle-class life in the United States, her parents have quietly been struggling. Her father has broken his leg at work and is forced to collect a meager pension; her mother gathers recyclables for money to supplement their income. Chi is viscerally confronted by this economic reality when she opens her family’s refrigerator. Her eyes widen in horror; her hand flies up to cover her nose. Depicted in harsh detail are shelves of rotting produce—browned vegetables, moldy fruit, old containers of food. Since when did mom start to live like this, Chi wonders, and how come I never found out until now? It’s a devastating moment in which she finally sees just how out of touch she has been with her parents’ lives. But On Happiness Road argues for the necessity of examining the realities, rather than the romances, of homecoming.
Clear-eyed examination is often painful, especially when Chi reckons with the false and destructive narratives she absorbed about her family as a child. On Happiness Road captures this struggle best through the relationship between Chi and her grandmother. As a child, Chi learns that her grandma is Amis—one of 16 officially recognized indigenous tribes in Taiwan—through a betel-nut vendor, who jeers, “Only savages and loose women chew betel nuts.” Unable to shake the idea of her grandma as a “savage,” Chi returns home and finds herself imagining her Ahma as a demon-eyed monster that slashes several chickens in one fell swoop. At school, Chi’s classroom recites a sanitized account about the ethnic-Chinese colonization and “civilization” of indigenous people in Taiwan; Chi visualizes granny, in her native dress, hopping into the textbook to behead a Chinese merchant. Beset with anxiety, Chi later dreams about losing a rose while escaping from Ahma, who has taken the form of a Maleficent-esque dragon.
One day, at the dinner table, little Chi summarizes this learned logic: If Ahma chews betel nuts and slays chickens, then she must be a savage who decapitates humans. But Chi’s grandmother rejects the power of such entrenched stories. “People can call us whatever they want,” she declares. “To survive, we must eat.” She then plops a piece of her home-cooked chicken into her granddaughter’s bowl. With that, Sung’s debut feature offers a simple yet potent reminder that identity should not be at the mercy of racial epithets, or government propaganda, or the kind of candy one eats. Rather, identity is also nourished by everyday practices of love, care, and remembrance. Once Chi understands this, her fairy tale shifts, too: The once-terrifying dragon plants a kiss on her head and returns her lost rose. As a film rendered in evocative, hand-drawn visuals, On Happiness Road crystallizes a truth about fantasy and memory: They can be unreliable and harmful, instilling fear or confusion about who we really are. But they also allow us to work out conflicting ideas about family, self, and belonging; sometimes, they can be tools for healing.