‘On Happiness Road’ Director Defines Her Own Happiness as ‘Doing What I Want’

Hsin Yin Sung went from aspiring doctor to film reporter to Oscars candidate

Last Updated: December 13, 2018 @ 1:24 PM

Growing up in Taiwan, Hsin Yin Sung always dreamed of pursuing a medical career in America. But after landing a journalism job and getting an education in film, the Taiwanese director now has her own stake in the 2019 Oscars race.

A candidate for Best Animated Feature, “On Happiness Road” tells the story of Lin Shu-Chi, or “Chi,” as she goes back home to Taiwan following her grandmother’s death. With a pending divorce and familial pressures, Chi recounts her childhood in the hopes of answering the ever-lingering question: What is happiness?

On Wednesday night, Sung joined TheWrap’s Brian Welk for a Q&A after a screening of her film, where she discussed her inspiration, life in America and happiness.

Actually, I always wanted to be a storyteller, so when I was little I used to write a lot of stories and my teachers would say, ‘Oh you [have] talent, you’re a good storyteller,'” Sung said. “Also I watched a lot of movies, but I never thought of becoming a filmmaker one day.”

The urge to share her personal story, Sung said, came from an assignment during her film school days at Columbia College in Chicago. She said her teacher encouraged her students to find their personal storytelling voice by sharing their own stories. Sung said she thought her experiences were ordinary and weren’t exciting enough to share. However, when she wrote the script to “On Happiness Road” nearly 10 years ago, Sung said she thought her personal story could give Oscar-nominated animations a run for their money.

“At the time I watched a film called ‘Persepolis,’ so I feel like I have a better story than this girl,” she said. “If that animation can get Oscar-nominated, probably I got a really good potential to write a story like this.”

Though “On Happiness Road” features bright and lively animations that Sung said were inspired by various animators, including those at Studio Ghibli, she first intended for the project to be a live-action movie. After sharing her film idea with her friend, Sung said she realized that animation would benefit the story because of its imaginative and fantastical aspects.

“On Happiness Road” discusses mature and often dark topics, including divorce, Sung said. Animation, however, allowed her to add some lightness and comedic flair to the darker moments.

“I think the best film or the best comedy is that you make people laugh with tears,” the director said. 

The film also tackles various forms of discrimination in both Taiwan and America — something Sung says she experienced first hand. On one side of the world, Sung said she experienced nasty rumors from classmates about her aboriginal roots. In America, however, she said she also experienced discrimination upon arriving in Chicago.

“Someone did throw a beer bottle at [me],” she said. “They said, ‘Go back to China you f****** Asian b****!'”

Sung ended the discussion by sharing her journey from film reporter to director, a move that she said eventually led to her happiness. As a reporter, Sung said her editors and readers wanted her to write gossip stories, which didn’t satisfy her storytelling desires.

When asked if she was where she wanted to be in life, Sung said both yes and no, explaining that her childhood self may not have been happy with her straying from her former aspiration of being a doctor. Despite the drastic diversion from her initial career trajectory, Sung said both she and her parents can find happiness in her storytelling, given the accolades she’s gained.

Now, I’m very happy with my life because I made a film, and even though I’m very poor because I put in a lot of money,” she said. “But I’m very happy because I’m doing what I want.”