Congratulations to Sung Hsin-ying (宋欣穎), whose On Happiness Road (幸福路上) won the grand prize in the feature anime category at the Tokyo Anime Award Festival last week.
The film, which manages to condense four decades of Taiwanese politics, economics, traditional and pop culture, as well as everyday life into 109 minutes while conveying a coherent and tear-jerking story, will be a great ambassador for Taiwan, helping people get to know or at least piquing their interest in the nation, as it undoubtedly will ride a wave of rave reviews and accolades as it is shown in more countries worldwide. Word is already spreading, with distribution companies in France and Spain reported to have acquired rights to show the film.
When the Taipei Times reviewed the film in January, the reviewer said that “the viewer probably needs to have grown up in Taiwan or have a decent understanding of its turbulent recent history to catch all the minute details,” as it is a deeply personal, fictionalized version of Sung growing up in rapidly changing times, in which Taiwan is hurtling toward democracy and modernization.
From the betel-nut-chewing Aboriginal grandmother and the spirit mediums who predict Patriotic Lottery numbers to negative attitudes toward speaking Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese) and disdain toward comedian Chu Ko Liang’s (豬哥亮) popular, but often crass shows, as well as the textbook story of former president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) watching fish swim upstream, which every child during the Martial Law era read — these are undoubtedly items that only people familiar with Taiwan would fully relate to.
However, the film’s magical realism, whimsical and captivating illustrations, and its overarching themes of love, dreams, generational conflict and societal change have won the hearts of foreign audiences.
As award presenter and notable animator Doug Sweetland said: “It is imaginative, spans many eras and inspires reflection on the meaning of life.”
The success of this and other productions that are deeply rooted in Taiwanese culture and history, but have found success with international audiences — such as last year’s viral White Terror-era video game Detention (返校) — proves time and again that local is international, and that those hoping to attract a foreign audience do not have to resort to cheesy interpretations and imitations of what foreigners might like to see.
As Taiwan moves from its propaganda-riddled past — where the government painted a completely false picture to Taiwanese and the world, and where people were taught to be ashamed of Taiwanese culture, which is fully addressed in the film — these productions are becoming increasingly valuable to generations of Taiwanese who were denied their own culture, many ignorant about the past, as a way to reclaim their identity and history.
Internationally, they serve as ambassadors of Taiwan to the world, which primarily only knows about the nation in the grand scheme of things, especially in relation to the US and China.
Now, malicious propaganda is coming from Beijing, in a much more dangerous form that threatens the nation’s very existence. Letting people know as much as possible about Taiwan is important on all fronts — exchange programs are effective for professionals and students, but mass entertainment is the quickest and most far-reaching way.
Being able to achieve all of the above is no easy feat, but Sung has set a high bar that local filmmakers can aspire to.
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