[Warning: Spoilers Ahead]
When Lin Shu-Chi returns to her childhood home in Taiwan, she finds everything changed. The fetid, canal running through her neighborhood is now a tidy town park and the buildings leveled by the 1999 Jiji earthquake have been rebuilt. Everything seems new and odd, an uncanny reflection of what she once knew as a little girl, having returned home with a life and husband in America and a child on the way. As an immigrant, she never felt truly at home in the States, baffled by the corporate uniformity of the suburbs and embarrassed by her half-white niece who thinks Chinese cooking is smelly and gross. She is similarly displaced in Taiwan, fielding a chorus of questions about being her parents “American daughter” when she wanders down old familiar streets. Chi’s not American, but she’s not exactly Taiwanese either—at least not the Taiwan that arose from the ashes of Chiang Kai-shek’s dictatorship in the 70s. Being one-fourth Amis—one of Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples cruelly suppressed by the refugee Nationalist government fleeing mainland Communists—she was mercilessly bullied in school: mocked by her classmates, her teachers beat every trace of Amis out of her, forbidding her from speaking her native Hokkien in favor of Mandarin. Now in middle age, Chi doesn’t know who she is but she knows what she is: miserable, unfulfilled, lost.
This listlessness born from ethnic ambiguity is central to Hsin Yin Sung’s superb On Happiness Road, an autobiographical Taiwanese animated film receiving its North American debut at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It’s deliberately childlike art style—one based on over-simplified geometric shapes, sequences of superfluid movement, and deceptively simple color palettes—makes the film seem like a series of Kindergarten drawings brought to life, promising a whimsical story of life and love. This is Sung’s trap. What appears on the surface to be a superficial Taiwanese riff on Studio Ghibli, particularly the family tales of Isao Takahata, is actually one of the most nuanced and complex animated dramas since Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s Persepolis (2007). The two films share many obvious similarities: both are coming of age stories about optimistic girls growing into conflicted, resigned adults against a historical backdrop of political unrest; both feature protagonists escaping their hyper-conservative native countries to live as expats in the West; both are productions from countries not particularly renowned for native animation industries. While Persepolis’ protagonist Marji benefited from a distinct cultural identity, one that grounded her tumultuous transition to womanhood and independence, Chi finds herself in a state of constant ethnic flux, one seemingly prophesied by her being born the same day of Kai-shek’s death when Taiwan was plunged into political unrest. It is this treatment of racial fluidity that elevates Sung’s wistful coming-of-age story into an essential work.
The film opens with Chi being called back from the States to Taiwan to attend the funeral of her grandmother, a provincial Amis who spat in the face of Mainland propriety. Through Chi’s childhood, her grandmother was her biggest supporter, offering the love and guidance her over-worked blue-collar parents couldn’t provide. When Chi shocked her family by declaring she wanted to switch her college major from medicine to literature, it was her grandmother who convinced them to let her pursue her dreams. But her countryside mannerisms were also an initial source of emotional conflict for Chi: while she took great comfort in her homespun wisdom that true happiness can be found not in the wealth pursued by her parents but by peace and a full belly, Chi was horrified by her “barbaric” countryside habits like chewing raw betel nuts and cooking chicken-head soup. At once drawn to and repulsed by her grandmother, her death serves as the perfect impetus for Chi’s confrontation with her feelings of racial identity throughout the film.
Upon arriving back in Taiwan, Chi reunites with one of her first childhood friends and arguably the film’s most aggressive racial flashpoint: Betty, the mixed race child of a Taiwanese mother and an American Air Force pilot who may or may not have flaked out on them. Despite being half Taiwanese and not speaking a word of English, Betty has the blonde hair and blue eyes of a young Marilyn Monroe and is mocked as a “foreigner” by her classmates. After a humiliating first day at grade school for Betty, Lin quickly latches onto her as a fellow “Other”. They become best friends, but as so often happens in real life they eventually drift away from each other as teenagers. After serendipitously running into Betty again, she discovers she has two children of her own, both as blonde-haired and blue-eyed as their mother. The film takes a long digression into a subplot concerning Betty’s life as a young woman where in order to eat she had to rely on her good looks to get modeling and acting jobs. Ironically, her American appearance made her “too pretty” for casting agents, forcing her to survive by doing stripteases at seedy clubs. (In one of the film’s cruelest flourishes, Betty is still unable to get these gigs until she dyes her blonde hair black so she can pass as a full-blooded Taiwanese woman.) During a gangland shootout, she’s rescued by a Taiwanese businessman who became her first husband. In Betty, we see a woman at even greater racial odds with Taiwan than Chi. Yet by embracing her Asian roots she managed to construct the kind of happy, fulfilled life that’s eluded Chi for years.
Finally there’s the tense relationship between Chi and her American husband Tony. After moving to New York City for school, they meet-cute at a store selling the same kind of Christmas ornaments her mother spent her off-hours making for extra money. They reunite in perhaps the most New York way possible—during a subway breakdown where they’re forced to walk from Manhattan to her home in Queens. They fall in love, get married, and she abandons school to become a full-time housewife and while they seem happy at first, Chi’s feelings of cultural isolation and personal unfulfillment grow and their marriage begins to disintegrate, particularly when Lin discovers she’s pregnant. She wants children—at least she thinks she does; he doesn’t. She comes to miss her Taiwanese roots; he seems surprised she wants to leave America and in one of the film’s subtlest moments, Chi suggests in a phone call that he only married her because he has an Asian fetish. In this way Sung sets up both Taiwan and America as lands that want to take and use Chi for their own purposes—one as a filially pious daughter, the other as a model, demure American wife.
But what does Chi want? On Happiness Road suggests that she might never know. But more importantly, that’s okay. Repeatedly throughout the film, the ghost of her grandmother appears to her and reminds her that happiness doesn’t last forever and that it’s important not to get too worked up over things you can’t control. She understood that by embracing her Amis heritage; Betty understood that when she turned her Western looks to her advantage as a dancer; and finally Chi understands that by choosing to divorce Tony and live in Taiwan. For Sung it seems, it’s the people—not necessarily the culture—in one’s life that help give it meaning. Chi has searched for a cultural identity for so long she’s forgotten she already has an identity: a familial one. When her parents offer to let her stay with them, she breaks down sobbing: ““But dad, what will I do here if I come back? I’m not good at anything.”
And in a moment that codifies the entire film, he responds: “Worry about that later. Let’s keep it simple. Just think about what you want for dinner now.”