Han Dan (寒單, Huang Chao-liang, 2019)

Han Dan poster 1Military deity of wealth “Han Dan” is said to be afraid of the cold, so those who worship at his altar try to keep him warm with firecrackers during a ritual still practiced in the Eastern cities of Taiwan in which young men embody the god and brave the fiery assault in a daring show of their masculinity. Some volunteer to play the god for money, others for pride, and a few for atonement but there are some crimes you can’t simply burn away either with fire or by hate. The heroes of Huang Chao-liang’s Han Dan (寒單) bond through tragedy and try push past their pain through brotherhood but only one of them is aware their present relationship is founded on twisted hate fuelled revenge even as a genuine connection forms underneath.

Nerdy, earnest school-teacher-to-be Zheng-kun (George Hu Yuwei) has been fostering a lifelong crush on the girl next door, Xuan (Allison Lin), who went away to Taipei and only rarely returns home. Too shy to declare himself, he is enraged and hurt to discover that she has been secretly dating a guy they went to high school with – popular kid Ming-yi (Cheng Jen-shuo) who used to bully him for being only a trash collector’s son. Ming-yi is set to play Han Dan at this year’s Lantern Festival and his show of manly bravado is almost more than Zheng-kun can bear. In a moment of madness, he throws his lighter into a pile of firecrackers hoping to injure his rival, but Xuan runs to warn him and is caught in the crossfire. She dies from her injuries, leaving both men feeling guilty and bereft though no one else knows that it was Zheng-kun who started the fire. 

While Zheng-kun gives up on his teaching career and retreats into gloomy introspection, Ming-yi, who lost his hearing and the use of his hand in the accident, has become a drug addict and petty criminal. Riddled with guilt, Zheng-kun commits to “saving” his former enemy – locking him up while he goes cold turkey and then bringing him into the recycling business he’s started on his father’s land, but still harbours hate in his heart both for himself and for the man Ming-yi used to be.

“If only we were real friends” Zheng-kun mutters under his breath during an otherwise idyllic moment at the river. Learning more about his “blood brother”, Zheng-kun discovers that a toxic family situation is what made him such a terrible person in high school which might ordinarily have fostered compassionate forgiveness but only makes things worse for Zheng-kun who continues to hate Ming-yi to avoid having to think about how much he hates himself for what he did to Xuan. In an effort to atone, he forces himself through the Han Dan ritual year after year, scorching his body with firecrackers but finding little in the way of cathartic release.

“Feeling the pain means I’m alive” he tells a melancholy woman who seems to have had a thing for him ever since he was a shy student with a part-time job in the sleazy snack bar where she works. Now violent and angry, he’s not such a sensitive soul anymore but she loves him all the same and resents the intrusion of the late Xuan into their awkward relationship. Like the lovelorn hostess and the song they find themselves listening to, Zheng-kun too has a secret in his schoolbag that’s becoming impossible to keep but speaking it threatens to upset the carefully balanced semblance of a life that he’s forged with an oblivious, wounded Ming-yi.

Both men struggle to move on from the past, unable to forgive themselves not only for what happened to Xuan but for the choices they did or didn’t make in their youths that leave them afraid to move forward and locked into an awkward brotherhood bonded by love and hate in equal measure. A final cathartic explosion may provide a path towards a new life but only through shattering the fragile bond born of shared tragedy and irretrievable loss. A beautifully lensed morality tale, Han Dan is an acutely observed portrait of the corrosive effects of guilt and trauma but also a tragedy of misplaced male friendship as two lost souls find each other only in losing themselves as they battle the inescapable shadows of the past.


Han Dan screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 30.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)