Ma Yihang, PhD candidate, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University
The 1999 release March of Happiness was directed by Lin Cheng-sheng and produced by Ching Pang Ko Film Production Co. The film’s main setting (referenced in the Chinese title, which translates as “Tianma’s Tea House”) is a tea/coffee house in Taipei’s Dadaocheng run by Zhan Fengshi (aka Zhan Tianma) who was a famous benshi, or silent film narrator, during the Japanese colonial period in Taiwan. The tea house was a popular gathering place for artists, writers, and intellectuals of the time. On 27 February 1947, a widow named Lin Jiangmai had her contraband cigarettes confiscated by the Tobacco Monopoly Bureau, and violent clashes between the people and police that would lead to the 228 Incident broke out, and this took place directly in front of Zhan’s tea house. The director chose to focus on the tea house for its great symbolic significance: during the Japanese colonial era, it had been an important cultural space, and it later became a major site of trauma and memory in Taiwanese history. By centering on this location, the film seeks to portray the Taiwanese people’s hopes and choices and how they were dashed amid the acute social unrest that came with regime change after the Japanese colonial period.
In the film, a theatre troupe called the “New Theatre Troupe” are frequent patrons of the Tianma Tea House, where they rehearse and discuss the issues of the day. The troupe’s star performer, Nuan Yu (“warm jade,” played by Suzanne Hsiao) is an outspoken lover of liberty and progressive thought who falls in love with A-Jin (played by Lim Giong), a young intellectual who studied music in Tokyo and Shanghai. But Nuan Yu’s father (played by Long Shaohua), the fish ball magnate of Eiraku-cho, wants to marry her off to Dr. Xie’s son, Renchang. One of the film’s major themes is a common one in literature: intellectuals dealing with the conflict between new, liberated ideas of love and the restrictive environment of the old society. Freedom and happiness are not a simple matter; love involves both personal choice and limitation. Regime change also brings new challenges in the form of change and conflict. March of Happiness unites both of these themes to portray the difficulties facing ordinary people swept up in the tide of history.
March of Happiness uses a series of interconnected minor events to hint at the ruptures and disparities between political, national, and daily life. For example, the New Theatre Troupe are forced to cut performances short because of policies on language, first under the Japanese colonial rule, and then under the new Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist) government. Their main theme song, “Blessed March,” is a biting satire of this. During the Pacific War, Zhan Tianma has to send employees to draw U.S. and British flags on the ground in front of his tea house so that people can trample them to show their “patriotism.” But soon after the end of the Second World War, the Chinese Nationalists take over Taiwan, and this image of patriotic devotion (to Japan) has to be erased, and everyone starts learning the new national anthem. The conflicts that arise from this mixing, intertwining, and translation of languages, voices, and cultures are constantly visible in the film and are shown to be a major part of the lives of ordinary people, giving a unique viewpoint from which to look back and reflect on this portion of history. At the end of the film, when soldiers are at the theatre threatening the public, A-Jin is killed by a stray bullet. Thus, at this point the tragedy of love and the tragedy of politics collide to form an indissoluble sorrow. The film’s narrative stops on the day of the 228 Incident, but the plot’s yearning for happiness, and the scars of politics, nation, and war, become the central historical axis that continues to raise questions.