Heaven is Still Far Away (天国はまだ遠い, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2016)

Heaven is still far away still 1Ryusuke Hamaguchi returns to the theme of objects in motion with his haunting short Heaven is Still Far Away (天国はまだ遠い, Tengoku wa Mada Toi). When one thing ends, conventional wisdom insists that something else must begin but real life shows us that that isn’t always the case. For three people attempting to deal with the legacy of an unsolved serial murder case, forward motion has been impeded, or perhaps refracted, and not least for the victim herself who remains a still point in an otherwise turning world.

Mitsuki (Anne Ogawa) tells us that her mother explained to her when she was a child that when you die you go to “heaven”, which is a place beyond the clouds. For Mitsuki, however, heaven still seems so very far off – after all, there are still so many things to experience here on Earth. At present, Mitsuki lives with Yuzo (Nao Okabe) – a strange and blunt young man who has the rather skeevy job of adding mosaics to pornographic videos. One day Yuzo gets a phone call from another young woman, Satsuki (Hyunri), who wants to interview him for a documentary she is making as a graduation project which will focus on her older sister who was murdered 17 years previously. Yuzo didn’t really know Satsuki’s sister but something he did after she died has captured her imagination and Satsuki would like to explore why he did it.

What ensues is a series of odd, concentric conversations as Satsuki tries to articulate her artistic intentions to the grumpy Yuzo who is either a quite a tactless person or one who likes to appear so for various unexplained reasons. Satsuki’s main hope, it seems, is a kind of exercise in emotional excavation. Confused by the way some things can carry on when others end, she wants to wants to mark out the shape her sister cut into the world by finding out how her presence and absence has affected the lives of those around her. For reasons which aren’t immediately clear, she wants to start with Yuzo because, through an accident of fate, he finds himself at the exact intersection of both of these points.

Satsuki asks if Yuzo bears a grudge towards her seeing as his life too has been derailed thanks to his connection with her sister’s life and death. Yuzo replies that he doesn’t – he bears the responsibility for the way his life has turned out, even if it might have been impacted by external events. Satsuki wrestles with trajectories, accepting that her family may have fallen apart on its own but always wondering what might have happened if she had died in her sister’s place, why her sister had to die rather than someone else’s, why parts of her life have also stopped in the wake of her sister’s absence. If Satsuki has “lost” something, did Yuzo “gain” it or did he “lose” too in gaining an additional burden? The only truth is that Mitsuki has become a point of refraction in each of their lives, looking on from the periphery unseen but making her presence felt even in her absence.

Hamaguchi once again makes the everyday seem strange as the past continues to haunt our protagonists, in ways both literal and metaphorical. An eery sense of sadness pervades, yet endings are refused in favour of dualistic circularity. Objects in motion must remain in motion, even if they appear to have stalled. One life refracts another, and absence defines presence. Heaven may still be far away, but it’s there all the same and its presence is felt, even if unseen.


Available to stream worldwide via Le CiNéMa Club until 24th May.

Love Education (相愛相親, Sylvia Chang, 2017)

Love Education posterWhat is love? Who gets to define it, and should it be a force of liberation or constraint? Sylvia Chang attempts to find out in looking at the complicated, unexpectedly interconnected romantic lives of three generations of women who discover that nothing and everything has changed in the decades that divide them. While a bereaved daughter channels her own anxieties of impending mortality into a petty and hopeless quest to validate the true love history of her parents, a daughter battles an oddly familiar problem with her musician boyfriend, and an elderly village woman is forced to realise she wasted her life waiting for the return of a man who had so carelessly abandoned her. Mediated by a culturally specific argument over burial rites, Love Education (相愛相親, Xiāng ài xiāng qīn) is a meditation on the demands and obligations of love, both familial and romantic, as they inevitably change and mature across the arc of lifetimes.

As Huiying’s (Sylvia Chang) elderly mother lies dying, she sinks into a vision of a bright summer’s day spent with her one true love who is already waiting for her in a better place. Huiying, a middle-aged school teacher facing semi-enforced retirement, is thrown into a tail spin of grief and anxiety in losing her mother, realising that it won’t belong before her daughter will in turn lose her. Weiwei (Lang Yueting), an aspiring TV journalist, remains unmarried and still lives at home though, unbeknownst to Huiying, is planning to move out and live with her aspiring rockstar boyfriend, Da (Song Ning). The plan is, however, thrown into confusion by the resurfacing of his ex, in the city with her son to complete in a cheesy TV singing contest. Meanwhile, Huiying has become obsessed with the idea of burying her mother alongside her father, only his body was sent back to his rural hometown, as is the custom, and so will need to exhumed and brought to the city. Unfortunately, Huiying’s father was technically a bigamist – he left an arranged marriage in the country to look for work in the city, “married” Huiying’s mother and never looked back. Huiying, determined to prove the “legitimacy” of her parents love seeks to reunite them in death, but Nana (Wu Yanshu) – the abandoned country wife, is hellbent on retaining the body, at least, of the man she married and thereby legitimising herself as a “true” wife.

Huiying’s grief-stricken descent into desperate obsession is a thinly veiled attempt to work through her own feelings of middle-aged dissatisfaction and anxiety on being violently confronted by her transition from a position of authority into a potentially powerless old-age. Her decades long marriage to Xiaoping (Tian Zhuangzhuang), a mild-mannered former teacher turned driving instructor, is comfortable enough but perhaps floundering as the couple contemplate their retirement and impending dotage. Huiying, mildly jealous of a elegant pupil who seems to have taken a liking to her husband, is also entertaining a mild crush on the father of one her own pupils while quietly feeling the distance that has inevitably grown between herself and her husband throughout the years. And so, she sets about “proving” that her parents’ romance was good and true, not only morally recognised but blessed by the state and legally approved.

This, however, proves more difficult than expected due to China’s rapid modernisation, series of political changes, high levels of bureaucracy and idiosyncratic way of issuing documentation. As her parents were “married” in the ‘50s, their union was approved by the local Communist authorities whose approach to record keeping was not perhaps as serious as might be assumed. The receipt for their license should be at the local block office, but they knocked that down. The papers were supposed to be moved to the town hall, but lacking resources they simply threw away all the documents from 1978 and before. Huiying’s parents belong to a past which has literally been thrown away, erased from history and regarded as an irrelevance by the current generation who think only of the future.

Meanwhile, Nana has been patiently waiting in her home town – a “good wife” by the standards of her rural society. Marrying Huiying’s father in an arranged marriage she has done all expected of her – looked after his family and then lovingly tended his grave despite the fact that he abandoned her after only a few months of marriage, not even bothering to tell her that he met someone else and wasn’t coming back. Nana, like Huiying, is desperate to legitimise her position to avoid the inevitable realisation that she has sacrificed her life for a set of outdated ideals.

Weiwei feels this most of all. Unlike her mother, she can’t forgive her grandfather’s moral cowardice in treating his first wife so cruelly. Building up an unexpected bond with the ironically named “Nana”, Weiwei is also forced to think about her own stalling relationship with Da who put his rockstar dreams on hold to stay with her rather than proceeding on to Beijing to try his luck there. Da, like her grandfather, has a past – in this case a childhood sweetheart with a young son and possibly territorial ambitions over a kind young man she has wounded through abandoning. Should Weiwei wait for Da, and risk ending up all alone like Nana, or should she end things now and give up on youthful romanticism for grown up practicality?

So bound up with the “legitimisation” of love, there’s an inevitable degree of possessiveness which creeps into each of the relationships – even that of Huiying and her daughter as she attempts to clip her wings to keep her close, but there’s also a kind of generosity in Chang’s direction which eventually allows them all to break away (to an extent) from an insecure need for validation to something bigger, warmer, and with more capacity for empathy and understanding. Quite literally a Love Education, Chang’s exploration of the romantic lives of three generations of women finds that though the times may have become more permissive nothing has become any easier. Nevertheless, there is comfort to be found in learning to appreciate the feelings of others, offering support where needed, and making the most of what you have while you have it in the acceptance that nothing is forever.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Special Lady (미옥, Lee An-gyu, 2017)

A Special Lady posterAll you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun – so goes the age old wisdom. Korean cinema, it has to be said, has been in a fairly progressive mood of late with several high profile female-led action movies to complement the macho melodrama that has become synonymous with the nation’s cinematic output. There has, however, been a slight imbalance in the way these films have been presented – yes, women carry guns and issue roundhouse kicks to the face but they do so out of maternal fire. This obsession with corrupted motherhood finds a natural home in Lee An-gyu’s A Special Lady (미옥, Miok) which puts puts Kim Hye-soo in a blonde wig and then asks her to do pretty much what she did in Coin Locker Girl only more sympathetically.

Na Hyun-jung (Kim Hye-soo) has risen from lowly bar girl and exploited sex worker to be the right-hand woman of mob boss Kim (Choi Moo-sung). Marshalling a collection of (well cared for) high class call girls, her main stock in trade is blackmail – she sends her girls out as honey traps to capture “important” people, bring them back to the “hotel” for illicit “fun”, and film them in the act to compel them to work in the best interests of the gang. The plan usually works, but snotty prosecutor Choi (Lee Hee-joon), who has just returned from his honeymoon after marrying the boss’ daughter, liked to think of himself as having integrity and is hell bent on revenge against the villainous Na. Exploiting weaknesses already exposed within the gang including the stormy romance between Na and ambitious foot soldier Lim (Lee Sun-Kyun), and the return of Na’s illegitimate son with boss Kim whose wife and (legitimate) child were murdered by a rival organisation, Choi sets about taking it down in an unorthodox way as a means of getting his sex tape back but also fulfilling his commitment to “justice”.

The English title, A Special Lady, has an awkward spin to it with its mobster-esque patter hinting at a classy bar girl or much loved peripheral figure. The Korean title which is simply a woman’s name gives a better indication of the tale at hand in its emphasis on loss of innocence, fall, and rebirth as something or someone else. Na is certainly well versed in the gangster world, perfectly equipped to operate within it both in her physical prowess and also in her emotional control, politicking, and ability to strategise, yet she also operates outside of gang structures with many, including Lim who has long been in love with her, resenting that a mere woman holds such a high position with such proximity to Kim.

This marginal status extends to Na’s feminised perspective which reduces her to a figure of ruined motherhood. Na takes care of her girls, as a mother would, entrusting them to another woman who acts as their madam but is fiercely loyal to her, more nanny than henchman. Her major preoccupation is with the son she was forced to give up as an infant after spending time on the inside on behalf of the gang. Joo-hwan (Kim Min-suk) is Kim’s son and heir and the mob boss has been careful to keep him overseas to keep him safe, but either because of persistent parental absence or his gangster genes, the boy keeps getting himself expelled for violent conduct and Kim thinks it’s probably time to bring him home and verse him in his heritage. Na has long wanted to be reunited with her almost grown up son, but he has no idea she is his mother and believes he is the son of Kim’s deceased wife. When Joo-hwan is threatened and then turned against her by vicious rumours, Na will stop at nothing to ensure his safety even if he never knows who she really is.

Na’s descent into ferocious fighting machine, attacking a field full of mobsters with a bone saw, is the rage of a mother whose child is threatened. She doesn’t fight them off because she wants to survive, or for revenge, or simply because they are from a rival gang but because they threaten her children both in the case of one of her girls who happens to be with Na, and of course their targeting of Joo-hwan solely to get to his mother. The world of the film is a persistently misogynistic one – not just in the way women are routinely used as a means to an end by the gangsters, and by Na herself, but in the way that Na struggles to be accepted as a valid member of the gangster hierarchy rather than an adjunct to it as an honorary manager of the female contingent. Lim, who feels displaced by her in his status within the gang, is also desperately in love with Na who seems to return his feelings on some level but ultimately turns him down – something he can not accept, stooping so low as to threaten Na’s child to blackmail her into accepting him despite his intense resentment on finding out about her previous relationship with Kim.

Unexpected action hero status aside, Na becomes nothing more than a figure of corrupted motherhood who must be “repaired” through saving her son and then by retiring to become a more “normal” maternal figure. The debut from Lee An-gyu, A Special Lady features a number of well choreographed action scenes, strikingly composed images, and impressive production design but all too often falls back on tired ideas as its heroine battles valiantly to save her son with the intention of “rescuing” herself in the process.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Better Tomorrow 2018 (英雄本色2018, Ding Sheng, 2018)

better tomorrow 2018 posterIn the history of Hong Kong cinema, there are few films which could realistically claim the same worldwide influence as John Woo’s 1986 landmark A Better Tomorrow. Commissioned by Tsui Hark, the then jobbing director Woo was tasked with creating a vehicle for a veteran Shaw Brothers star. Casting Cantopop idol Leslie Cheung and TV sensation Chow Yun-fat, Woo mixed traditional melodrama with hyper masculine emotionality to give birth to what would become the “heroic bloodshed” genre which was to dominate the island’s cinematic output well into the ‘90s. A Better Tomorrow, as its title implies, is the perfect evocation of its era and among the first to express an oncoming anxiety for Hong Kong’s “return” to China then only a decade away. Slick and oozing with ‘80s, macho cool, Woo’s film captured the imaginations of young men everywhere who suddenly took to wearing sunglasses and trench coats while chewing on match sticks, dreaming dreams of heroism in a sometimes gloomy world.

Which is all to say, attempting to “remake” Woo’s masterpiece may well be a fool’s errand. It is however one which has been frequently attempted, not least by Wong Jing in 1994 and Song Hae-sung in Korea in 2010. Korean cinema has perhaps become the heir of heroic bloodshed with its inherent love of melodrama which often finds its way into the nation’s bloody gangster epics whose generally high level of homosocial bonding is perfectly primed for male honour drama. Ding Sheng, apparently a huge fan of the original Hong Kong hit, brings the tale north to the Mainland, relocating to Qingdao which serves as a trading post for the drug running route from Japan.

As in the original we have two biological brothers – Kai (Wang Kai), a “sailor” who has fallen into smuggling to support his family who are unaware of his criminal occupation, and Chao (Ma Tianyu) – a rookie policeman. Meanwhile, Kai also has a criminal “brother” in his younger partner Mark (Wang Talu), an orphaned hothead from Taiwan. Kai is a “noble” smuggler who refuses to traffic drugs but a Hong Kong triad boss is hellbent on fishing out his Japanese contacts and after a job goes wrong, Kai ends up getting shot and arrested by his own brother who is heartbroken to discover the truth. Spending three years in prison during which time Kai’s father is killed in a raid on their home by gangsters looking for info on the Japanese, Kai tries to go straight but finds himself pulled back into the underworld after coming into conflict with villainous gangster Cang (Yu Ailei) who has taken over the Japan route (and forced Kai’s old girlfriend into prostitution after getting her hooked on drugs).

Ding’s film, while replicating the plot of Woo’s original, attempts to bring it into the “modern” era in which the stylised, manly melodrama of the ‘80s action movie has long since been replaced by a finer desire for “uncool” realism. Ding does not seem to be making a particular point about modern China, other than in persistent economic inequality which has forced an “honest” man like Kai into a life of crime for the otherwise honourable reason of taking care of his family. Though this itself maybe a subtle reference to the post-90s world, the major anxiety seems to be more with cross cultural interactions and possible pollution of “good” Chinese men like Kai who have been led astray by the false promises of, for example, gangsters from Hong Kong, and the old enemies in Japan. Interestingly enough, the relationships themselves are formalised and superficial. In Japan Kai and Mark are entertained in a “super Japanese” bar of the kind which only tourists frequent, decked to the ceilings with cherry blossoms and staffed with “geisha” girls, while in China they take their guests to a bar which has Peking Opera going on in the background as entertainment.

Kai is fond of telling his sworn brother that everything in the world may change, but brotherhood remains the same. This turns turn out to be an ironic comment in that his natural brother, Chao, disowns him in shame and loathing after his release from prison. Nevertheless, Kai never gives up striving for Chao’s approval even whilst reuniting with Mark who has been crippled and reduced to cleaning boats at the harbour after trying to exact revenge for Kai’s betrayal. The trio’s manly honour code is thrown into stark relief by the amoral Cang who, claiming that “the world has changed” and loyalty no longer means anything, thinks nothing of shooting anyone and everyone who stands between himself and financial gain. If Ding has a comment to make, it’s that the traditional ideas of brotherhood, loyalty, justice and goodness are being eroded by the lure of foreign gold promised by corruption, exploitation, and an absence of morality.

Ding isn’t trying to match Woo’s grand sweep of tragic inevitability so much as aiming for straightforward crime drama but his occasional concessions to melodrama never quite gel with his otherwise gritty approach, nor do his unsubtle his homages to the original film which find Leslie Cheung’s iconic theme song becoming a frequent musical motif as well as prominently featuring at an ultra cool hipster bar located in a disused boat which plays his record on a turntable with a large picture of a grinning Chow Yun-fat behind it. A Better Tomorrow 2018 succeeds as a passible action drama, but one without the heart and soul that made Woo’s original so special. 


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Chedeng and Apple (Si Chedeng at si Apple, Rae Red & Fatrick Tabada, 2017)

chedeng and apple posterWhen you feel you’ve discharged all your social obligations, you might feel as if you’ve a right to live by your own desires. Whether the dreams you abandoned in youth will still be there waiting for you is, however, something of which you can be far less certain. Following the death of her husband, one Filipina grandma decides to find out, taking to the road with her best friend who is, incidentally, wanted for murder and carrying around the severed head of her late spouse in a Louis Vuitton handbag belonging to her vacuous step-daughter, in search of the one that got away.

Chedeng (Gloria Diaz), apparently plotting the death of her sickly husband, is shocked to find him already gone when she takes him his breakfast. Shielded by the window which places her in the crematorium and her children outside it, Chedeng decides to make a shock announcement that comes as no surprise to her supportive best friend Apple (Elizabeth Oropesa). Standing front and centre and with intense determination, she announces to her grown up sons that she is a lesbian and will now be embarking on a more authentic life. Her sons are scandalised. Despite the fact that her youngest son is gay himself (and slightly hurt that his apparently supportive mother had never thought to share her own conflicted sexuality with him), the other two cannot get their heads around it and assume their mother has had some kind of mental breakdown.

Meanwhile, Apple whose life has been far less conventionally successful has been married to a wealthy but violent and abusive husband for the last five years. Praying furiously for his demise through black magic, she eventually snaps and kills him. Calling Chedeng for help, the pair dismember (in full view of the “discreet” maid) and bury the body (save for the head which Apple insists on keeping, and his penis which she can’t resist nailing to the wall and ruining the perfect crime in the process). With both their husbands out of the picture the pair decide to go on the run to look for Chedeng’s first love – a woman called Lydia for whom she had promised to return, only that was over 40 years ago.

At heart Chedeng and Apple is a story of liberation. The two women have been consistently impeded by men who prevented them from living the lives they wanted to live, trapping them within the patriarchal system of the conventional family. Chedeng, a serious and earnest woman, has prided herself in conforming so completely to the social role expected of her. A straight laced schoolteacher, she married well and kept a fine home raising three sons and supporting her husband who apparently knew she was gay and just accepted it. With her children grown and her obligation to the man she married at an end, she finally feels herself free to be her true self. Apple meanwhile has had the opposite experience in a series of unfulfilling relationships with useless men on whom she blames (rightly or otherwise) her inability to pursue her dreams of becoming an actress. Finally ending up in an abusive but economically comfortable relationship, she eventually has no choice but to free herself through violent means.

A pervasive sense of melancholy haunts the film as it becomes clear how much Chedeng has suffered in sacrificing her authentic self to live the life society expected of her. Lydia, the lost love of her youth, was braver – she dreamt of escaping to an island for a simple fisherman’s life in which she and the woman she loved could perhaps live together wanting little more than each other’s company. Chedeng, conventional as she is, could not imagine it and, though she vowed to return and reclaim her love after going to the city, she has waited 40 years and fears it may be too late.

Yet the resolution to her problems isn’t found in romance but in the depth of the friendship she shares with the loose cannon that his Apple – a woman her total opposite who follows her desires to destruction and freely speaks her mind little caring what anyone else may think about it. The spiky banter between the two women has an authentic, lived-in quality that brings a degree of realism to the often absurd adventure and proves a comedic counterpoint to the heaviness of the issues. Warm and oddly hopeful for its aged protagonists, if lamenting that they had to wait so long to achieve their “freedom”, Chedeng and Apple is at once a fierce condemnation of an oppressive, misogynistic society and a joyful celebration of friendship and liberation.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Family Meeting (家族会議, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1936)

Family Meeting horizontal posterGiven the strident tone of the times, it was perhaps becoming more difficult to avoid politics altogether by the mid-1930s, but Yasujiro Shimazu manages it well enough in Family Meeting (家族会議, Kazoku Kaigi) – a romantic melodrama set in the world of the high stakes family business. Shimazu is best remembered as the pioneer of the shomingeki – stories of ordinary lower-middle class life in the contemporary era, but Family Meeting shifts up a little way in its focus on a young CEO who discovers it’s lonely at the top, not least because of the burden of family legacy and its unexpected impact on his difficult love life.

Shimazu opens on a noisy trading room floor at the Shigezumi Company before shifting to the equally chaotic boss’ office. Young CEO Takayuki (Shin Saburi) is called out by a family friend, Haruko (Yasuko Tachibana), who insists he come to the theatre to meet a young lady, Kiyoko (Michiko Kuwano), with whom she hopes to set him up. Takayuki’s love life is somewhat complicated in that he’s in love with “that woman from Osaka” – Yasuko (Michiko Oikawa) who also happens to be the daughter of a former business associate whose dodgy dealings some say pushed Takayuki’s late father to suicide. Yasuko is coming to Tokyo for the memorial service for Takayuki’s dad in company with her friend, Shinobu (Sanae Takasugi), but is also being pursued by another suitor – Rentaro (Kokichi Takada), a businessman who is secretly attempting to undermine Takayuki’s business through merging with another company.

Difficulties abound for Takayuki as his business suffers and he’s pestered from all sides as regards his romantic inclinations. Despite his personal feelings, he is unable to fulfil his romantic desires with Yasuko because of their difficult family history while Haruko attempts to push him towards Kiyoko. Kiyoko, the daughter of the businessman undercutting Takayuki’s business wouldn’t be such a good match either if anyone but she knew about the machinations, but currently they’re a well kept secret. Having fallen in love with Takayuki she eventually decides to spill the beans which gives him an all important advantage though he has to mortgage his house and approach Shinobu’s father, a wealthy Buddhist monk, for a loan in order to stay afloat. Takayuki isn’t interested in Kiyoko and finally has to resort to bluntness to make her understand but the eventual outcome is as positive as it could be and, in any case, works out well enough once she realises she’s developed an attraction for Rentaro who is finally beginning to go off Yasuko.

The romantic and the corporate increasingly overlap but the general message is that the modern business of commerce is chaotic and messy. The shouting of the trading floor and the backroom dealing of Rentaro’s nefarious plan are not exactly the rarefied world of gentleman’s agreements which often passes for the salaryman life in Japanese cinema, but the central irony is that the wealthiest man of all is the monk who “earns” his money passively through the largely silent practice of donation. The monk’s modern girl daughter, Shinobu, by contrast is a spendthrift with a taste for the spirt of the age – fast cars, feather boas, fancy hats and a confident forthrightness that stands in stark contrast to the shy diffidence of the permanently kimono’d Yasuko. The final irony is that it’s Shinobu who ultimately ends up “in charge” not only of Takayuki’s business arrangements – receiving the debt from her father and deciding to run the company herself with Takayuki as the boss, but also of his romantic life when she engineers a reunion with Yasuko before valiantly driving off alone into the mountains, her work here well and truly done.

Only once Takayuki is freed from his workplace burden is he able to address his romantic difficulties, and only by leaving the city behind is he able to free himself of his father’s legacy. Thanks to the gentle machinations of Shinobu, everyone is able to move forward with a little more certainty and little less preoccupation as she alone decides to shoulder all their burdens without thought for herself. Unlike many ‘30s films, Family Meeting’s central message seems to be slow down, let others help when things get hard, and try to avoid being so noble you make yourself unhappy. All good lessons though perhaps inexpertly delivered and without Shimazu’s usual wit.


On Happiness Road (幸福路上, Sung Hsin-yin, 2017)

On happiness road posterSung Hsin-yin attempts a series of impossibles with her debut feature, On Happiness Road (幸福路上, Xìngfú Lùshang). In a bold move she has crafted what is possibly the last Taiwanese animated feature while attempting to pack 40 years of turbulent political history into the story of a lost middle-aged women ruminating on her cheerful, uncomplicated childhood on the distinctly humble Happiness Road. Battling the weight of parental expectation and the false promises of a better life overseas, her heroine, Chi, makes an enforced return to source on hearing that her beloved, part-aboriginal grandmother has passed away.

Chi (Gwei Lun-mei), an unhappy 30-something woman, receives the call in America where she has been living with her American husband. Unbeknownst to her family, Chi’s marriage is all but over and she finds herself at something of a crossroads, half wondering if it’s time to come home to Taiwan and half humiliated in being seen to have returned with her tail between her legs. She comes home, alone, to mourn her grandmother but finds herself wandering back through the streets of memory and fantasy recalling all the small details and minor incidents that brought her to his point in the hope of figuring out where it is she needs to go next.

Chi was born in 1975 on the very day that Chang Kai-shek died. Chang was by then a brutal dictator but the brainwashed little Chi who still sees his picture everywhere and has been taught to respect his many virtues idolises him all the same. Her family, uneducated ordinary working people, speak Taiwanese Hokkien at home but at school she has to speak Mandarin – the “official” language, all dialects are banned. Thus little Chi finds her parents’ language backward and embarrassing, their failure to adapt to “modernity” a hurdle in her own forward development.

As time moves on, Chi’s “Taiwaneseness” becomes something she feels she must sacrifice in order to purse the conventional success expected by her parents and the society at large. Little Chi, riding in the back of a pickup truck with her parents on the way to Happiness Road, asks them one of the biggest questions of all – what does “happiness” mean. Her parents, unable to answer, shush her, but her father (Chen Po-cheng) seems pleases his daughter has such big thoughts and wonders if she might become a philosopher one day. Oh no, replies her mother (Jane Liao). There’s no money in that – she’ll be a doctor! Her parents want for her all the material comforts of the settled middle classes, but her society tells her to attain them she must leave her nativeness behind – speak Mandarin, forget about granny’s ancient wisdom, and eventually go abroad leaving the “old fashioned” island far behind.

Chi has done everything she was supposed to do. She studied hard, got a good degree, got an OK job, and then ended up going to America almost on a whim. She reached the destination expected of her, but still she isn’t happy. Her marriage is failing as she and her American husband want very different things out of life and Chi wonders if she really belongs in this insincere culture which, at the end of the day, has never quite accepted her. In America she experienced mild forms of racism but then didn’t her half-American friend, Betty (Li Chia-hsiu) – blonde with blue eyes but speaking only Mandarin, experience exactly the same thing in Taiwan? Pregnant but seeking an escape from an unhappy marriage, Chi also worries what the future will be if she chooses to come home and raise her half-American child alone in a perhaps unforgiving society.

Yet reuniting with Betty she discovers that even if her life has not quite turned out the way she planned, she is blissfully happy as a single mother to two children, blonde like her but with brown eyes. Chatting with the ghost of her late grandmother who still has a few lessons to impart, Chi learns to see with the eyes of her heart and comes to realise that sometimes the road to happiness passes through a few uncertain turns but that that’s OK. Her parents, whom she feared would judge her for a failed marriage and a child born after divorce, are predictably enough only too happy at the prospect of their only daughter coming home for good and finally making them grandparents no matter the circumstances surrounding the origin of both those events. Chi may not have wanted the “road” her parents and her society had attempted to lay down before her, but discovers that departing from it is not failure and that “happiness” is a concept you are free to define for yourself. Beautifully animated and filled with whimsical flights of fancy, On Happiness Road is a sometimes melancholy but heartwarming tale of life in modern Taiwan as one lost woman finally discovers the road home and realises it has been waiting for her all along.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)