On Happiness Road [2018] – A Heart-Warming Animated Tale of a Woman’s Re-Awakening




What could a simple, melancholic existence of a woman in a gentrifying urban community offer the modern viewers? ‘A soulful and richly layered film’ says Hsin-Yin Sung’s autobiographical animated family drama, On Happiness Road (‘Hsing fu lu shang’, 2018). On the outset, it seems to tell the familiar tale of an adult reflecting on the dreams of perfect life she once possessed (as a child and teenager), which only stayed a dream. The narrative is all about our young protagonist looking back at her bittersweet past and processing her muddled present to find answer to the question: What Next? But such roughly detailed plot-line wouldn’t do justice to this brilliant drama, which gracefully intertwines the personal with the political and social. The weight of parental expectations, the promise of overseas life, the disorientation & bitterness of modern adulthood, and existential malaise of educated urban women are all some of the other themes Hsin-Yin Sung tackles in her story. Most importantly, the hovering philosophical question of ‘What is Happiness?’ lies at the core of On Happiness Road.

When we first lay our eyes on adult Chi (voiced by actress Lun-mei Kwei) she is supposedly living a dream life. Born to working-class Taiwanese parents in 1975, Lin Shu-Chi has moved to US after education. She is now (in her early 30s) married to a blonde-haired American and living in a peaceful suburban neighborhood. Chi receives a phone call from Taiwan, informing that her beloved grandmother has passed away. She journeys back to her native land and in tidbits the narrative showcases Chi’s uncomplicated, happy childhood she had while living with her parents in a tiny apartment on the ‘Happiness Road’. At age 6 while traveling on a truck packed with furniture towards their new apartment, Chi questions her parents, ‘what’s happiness?’, the answer to which Chi is still searching.


Beneath the sheen of her suburban American life lies heartbreak. Chi’s is estranged from her husband; the conflict over having a kid has driven them apart. Moreover, despite pursuing a university education she doesn’t have a career in America. Since the marriage is all but over Chi, after arriving for grandmother’s funeral, considers staying with her parents in the same ‘Happiness Road’ apartment. Once after reaching home, every little place in the ever-changing neighborhood triggers tons of childhood, adulthood memories: the friendships she had and lost; the ideological convictions and the dreams she cherished that were now laid to waste. The earthy, affectionate, betel-nuts chewing grandmother have always been a soothing presence in Chi’s life. Now gazing back at the vestiges of a sweet past, Chi feels the pressure of being at the crossroads. Adding further to her conflict is the indecision over telling her parents about the divorce procedures and her pregnancy.


What makes On Happiness Road not just another exercise in nostalgia is writer/director Hsin-Yin Sung’s ability to relate the changes in Chi’s life with Taiwan’s contemporary politics and recent history. Chi is born on the eve of Chiang Kai-shek’s death, the Kuomintang (KMT) leader. And as Chi grows, events from the turbulent political period of Taiwan is constantly evoked. The struggles of 70 and 80s Taiwan to establish its national identity reflects in the social, political undercurrents which directly influences Chi’s choices in life. Some of those details are expressed in a matter-of-fact manner; for instance, Chi’s elementary teacher announcing monetary fines for anyone caught speaking the native Taiwanese dialect instead of Mandarin (which the authoritarian KMT government mandated). Although for a time Chi seems to succumb to her parents’ desires and prepares for medical course, the Taiwanese student protests for democratic reforms imparts a political consciousness within Chi so as to choose a different major. She protests against banning of books in pro-democracy demonstrations, and like all of our na├»ve younger-selves believes in the greater change to be harvested from the impending revolution. However, after witnessing major social and political events in Taiwan, the family’s economic status pushes Chi to commit herself to an office job (the mundanity of her life is depicted through the sadly poetic scenes).

Even without having a clear understanding of Taiwan’s recent history, Chi’s existential woe is universally relatable (hence it’s no surprise that the film found more success on international festival circuits than at local box-office). As always, the glowing promises of revolution and change only follows up with ‘economic miracles’ that demands conformity and to drool over the empty, materialistic life. The ennui and existential woe Chi feels in her 30s despite making it big in America is painfully familiar. In a way, On Happiness Road reminded me of two other spellbindingly nuanced animated dramas: Marjane Satrapi’s adaptation of her own graphic novel 'Persepolis' (2007)’ and Isao Takahata’s melancholic tale of an unmarried career woman in ‘Only Yesterday’ (1991). If Persepolis demonstrated a country’s societal, political oppression through the point-of-view of one family, Only Yesterday pays an endearing tribute to girlhood dreams and subtly lays out the realities and disappointments that impact a woman’s life. Similarly, Hsin-Yin Sung also sharply attunes to the ‘Personal Is Political’ argument. In fact, this is a heavy subject to tackle in a first film i.e., juggling between themes of women empowerment and fraught national identity. Director Hsin-Yin does all this with a sincerity and preciseness that never veers into outright melodrama.


If I am pressed to find some issues with On Happiness Road, it solely belongs to the animated visuals. Unlike Studio Ghibli’s films or Marjane  Satrapi’s distinct aesthetics, Hsin-Yin’s pastel-colored world feels a bit limited and monotonous after a time (especially in the second-half). Of course, we could understand the budgetary constrains and the technical limitations since this is neither a major studio project nor made by a seasoned animator. Moreover, it’s a niggling issue when compared with Hsin-Yin Sung’s layered story-telling abilities. Altogether, On Happiness Road (111 minutes) is an engrossing, soulful tale of one lost woman finding the truth that the path to happiness starts within us.  

 Trailer



The Old Man & the Gun [2018] – A Simple Meta-Homage to an Old Hollywood Star




David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun (2018) opens with a bank robbery, just after the title card mentions the following story to be ‘mostly true’. But guns aren’t shoved into faces, voices weren’t raised, staffs and other people don’t lie on the ground, impaired by mortal fear. The film is set in early 1980s (shot on 16mm, the grainy faded look gives the genuine 1980s American cinema feel) and what we see is an old gentleman calmly collecting some money from an even-tempered young bank teller. In fact, the robbery is clearly confirmed only by the police radio, which the elderly bank robber is listening to through what outwardly looks like a ‘hearing-aid’. Some sort of police chase ensues, but this one isn’t similar to the tense opening segments in Refn’s ‘Driver’ or Edgar Wright’s ‘Baby Driver’. The old guy just stops to help an old woman having trouble with her pick-up truck. Out of courtesy, hidden under the intention to evade the police, the bank-robbing gentleman Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) gives lift to the independent-minded widow Jewel (Sissy Spacek) dropping her at a sprawling ranch, outside Dallas, Texas. In the narrative course, Forrest courts Jewel and a tentative bond is forged between them. And, yes the old guy keeps on robbing banks for fun, just flashing his Colt .45 but without ever indulging in violence (as one bank manager tells the police, “He was such a gentleman”).

Director Lowery’s third feature and first acclaimed drama ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ (2013) seemed like a chase-thriller, but ended up being a wistful, Malick-ian romance between a outlaw couple. His next film was a strong and cherished family entertainment Pete’s Dragon (2016). Lowery followed this up with an unbelievably great art-house feature A Ghost Story (2017). Casey Affleck, fresh from his Oscar-winning turn from Manchester by the Sea, played a white-sheeted ghost haunted by love and loss. Now Lowery takes a true story of a bank robber and shoe-horns it to be a fitting swan song to Robert Redford, while also indulging his nostalgia for the 70s celluloid warmth. The Old Man & the Gun is largely a soulful and cinematic homage to Robert Redford the star as Lowery administers his artistic tools to add an extra shine to the actor’s charm. Hence, the film could easily be an underwhelming experience for those who don’t dig into the sweetness of Redford tribute (there’s plethora of nods to the octogenarian actor’s cinematic past, which includes films like The Chase, Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, and The Sting).  


Written by David Lowery, The Old Man & the Gun is based on David Grann’s (Lost City of Z, Killers of the Flower Moon) New Yorker article about Forrest Tucker, a ‘charming’ career-criminal and escape artist, whose Over-The-Hill Gang’ (comprised of two other older prison pals; played by Danny Glover and Tom Waits in the film) only in 1980 robbed as many as 60 banks. Tucker has escaped from prison at least 18 times and went on to commit his final robbery at the age of 79 in 1999 (he passed away in prison five years later). Convinced that his name should be in the ‘hall of fame’ of outlaws and robbers, Tucker himself wrote manuscripts, hoping that Hollywood would one day turn it into a movie. Lowery’s story is simply a playful take on Tucker’s criminal life without ever attempting to carefully approximate the gentleman robber’s life and quirks through Redford’s performance. In fact, writer/director Lowery extracts events from Tucker’s life so as to create a meta-textual layer that neatly reflects Robert Redford’s fifty-years-plus acting career. Not to mistake Lowery’s vision as a post-modernist take on a self-possessed robber, but it’s simply a sincere and old-fashioned portrait of the artist as a veteran robber.


Lowery is comfortable with focusing on the subtle dramatics of the situation rather than frame it as a conventional ‘heist flick’ (one of the ‘Over-The-Hill’ gang’s biggest job happens off-screen). There’s absolutely no thrill in the robbery sequence. What interests Lowery is Tucker’s need to feel the thrill of being alive. This is marked by his sweet yet non-committal relationship with Jewel. The scenes between the iconic Redford and Spacek are clearly a lesson in on-screen chemistry as the pair exude affection and pathos that couldn’t be found in the entirety of modern rom-coms. Tucker also develops a sort of odd bond with his pursuer, a Dallas Detective named John Hunt (Casey Affleck). Hunt remains an unambitious cop but he suddenly becomes preoccupied with the mysterious, elusive robber. He is also partly captivated by Tucker’s singular talent and professionalism. Hunt’s warm family life (a beloved wife and two smart daughters) remains a clear contrast to Tucker who has an estranged daughter (Elisabeth Moss in a cameo) and has left a trail of agony and heartbreak. If Hunt’s eyes twinkles after bathing in his wife’s warm hug, for Tucker infectious smile naturally adorns his face once the stick-up is under way. Nevertheless, Lowery doesn’t make a clear-cut commentary on these characters’ masculinity, while highlighting Tucker’s preoccupations and nostalgic fancies as one-of-a-kind element which is not treated with pensive sadness but fondness.

At times, Lowery’s rigorous focus on the movie star, his brand of mischief and charisma, make the narrative course seem too lean and too relaxed. It’s also too muted for a character study as Forrest Tucker is mostly remains a symbolic figure and questions regarding his life and mindset are often dodged.  A heightened atmosphere of farewell illuminates the storytelling throughout (Lowery even conjures a setting to frame the star on the horse, echoing Redford’s status as old-school acting legend) and the director considers it satisfactory enough to leave it at that. The blunt psychologization, exploration of social or cultural milieus is just deemed extraneous. The real Forrest Tucker saw the gun he used in bank-robbery merely as an ‘essential’ prop. In The Old Man & the Gun (93 minutes), David Lowery uses Tucker’s life as a prop to devise a tribute to the 82-year old Robert Redford’s stardom (and may be like Forrest Tucker Mr. Redford wouldn’t call it quits?). It’s an easygoing, feel-good entertainment but wouldn’t be an unforgettable feature. 

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The Sisters Brothers [2018] – A Meandering Yet a Stirring Tragicomic Western




The Sisters Brothers, based on Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt’s 2011 novel, marks the English-language debut for acclaimed French film-maker Jacques Audiard. It’s also Mr. Audiard’s first foray into Western genre, the man behind Hitchcokian thrillers Read My Lips (2001), The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and exemplary, multi-layered dramas A Prophet (2009), Rust and Bone (2012). And unlike the foundational works of Western genre from the likes of John Ford or Howard Hawks, Audiard deals less with the mythical Western landscape and focuses more on the absurdities and wild ambition of the men belonging to old American frontier. This Western character piece does take its time to establish the plot as the first hour throws melange of mythic archetypes and (repeatedly) emphasizes on the characters’ eccentricities. Nevertheless, the earlier, plot-less exercises in genre tropes don’t get too tedious, simply because of the talented quartet of performers and John C.Reilly’s soul-searching bounty-hunter is easily the most impressionable character among the central four. 

The oddly named titular brothers are Eli (John C.Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), a mid 19th century hired guns plying their trade of killing during the early days of Californian Gold Rush. The uncertainty and messiness of their job is established in the opening shot, which unfurls over a sprawling prairie at nighttime, the gunfire traded from an isolated cabin and grassland sporadically illumines the landscape. Eli, the older brother, is a considerably warm-hearted man who has grown weary of making ends meet through murders. Charlie is a trigger-happy, drunken lout, who enjoys the disquieting atmosphere of the Old West. Employed by the powerful and wealthy Commodore (Rutger Hauer in a blink-and-miss cameo), the two brothers are on the trail of Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a young idealist and prospector, whose chemical formula might be the easiest way possible for locating gold in riverbeds. Eli and Charles’ job is to extract the formula (by any means) and kill Warm. Commodore has already sent a scout named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) to keep an eye on Warm. Of course, nothing goes according to plan and the narrative tone often veers between comedic and gruesome.


Despite the presence of bigger stars like Phoenix and Gyllenhaal, John Reilly easily owns the movie, and it’s through his weary yet humanist perspective much of the narrative unfolds. Reilly’s Eli is a bumbling giant who displays depths of sensitivity and tenderness that wildly contrasts with his distrustful surroundings. There’s one amazing bittersweet scene where Eli hires a prostitute (Allison Tolman) and coaches her to engage in a kind dialogue (whereas she is bedazed by his pleasant nature). Eli in spite of his skill set and symbiotic relationship with Charlie yearns for benignity and warmth of a home. And the transformation that sprouts within Eli is often related with the promises of modernity. In one of the visits to a frontier town, Eli buys a newly designed product called ‘toothbrush’ (it comes with a little ‘user guide’). This preoccupation for hygiene in a way changes Eli so that he digs deeper into his dreams, humanity, and conscience. Ahmed’s Warm who dreams of forming a utopian, democratic commune also hints at a form of emotional enlightenment born out of modernity and idealism. At the same time, Audiard and his co-writer Thomas Bidegain doesn’t decidedly portray the encroaching modernity as the unfailing antidote to the violent Wild West. The rapid change to modernity not only provides the idea of civilized restaurant dinner but also scorches humanity, sometimes literally as we witness the devastating effects of Warm’s chemical formula.


Although The Sisters Brothers is an adaptation of a novel and set in the Old West, the archetypal Audiard characters and themes could very well be found in the narrative. Similar to the protagonists in A Prophet, Rust and Bone, and Dheepan, Eli might be a fighter with a hulking figure, but these slow character studies is adeptly designed to bring out the men’s tenderness and vulnerabilities (things they didn’t know they possess), before setting them off on a path towards redemption and hope. Director Audiard do struggle a bit in juggling between different tones and ideas,  particularly the way he takes pains to diffuse shades of humanity into Charlie and Eli before delving into yet another violent episode. Even though the film was not shot in US (but in Spain, France, and Romania), Audiard’s gaze rarely falls upon the sprawling landscape (cinematographer Benoit Debie however makes good use of the expansive setting whenever the situation demands). His formal language as usual pays more attention to the characters’ interior lives and their conversations. Even in distinct Western settings like saloons and gun-fights, the priority lies on how the characters are framed (including the nod to John Ford’s The Searchers in the final ‘home-coming’ scene). Eventually, the performances play a vital role in delivering the due emotional impact. Much of the interest in the narrative lies in figuring out how the four main characters come together and how their fates are written.

The Sisters Brothers (121 minutes) smartly discards the superfluous layers of the legendary Western genre though its surprising and sometimes morbid tonal shifts may not work for all. Anyway, John C.Reily’s endearing central performance is reason enough to watch the movie. 

Trailer