"The Home Song Stories": Migrant Experience in Australia By Annette Willis

in 16th Brisbane International Film Festival

by Annette Willis

The Home Song Stories, the autobiographical second feature by (Macau-born) writer-director Tony Ayres, is a story of a boy, Tom, his sister May and their mother, Rose, a Shanghainese singer who lands in suburban Melbourne in the 60s with little English and no money. Rose’s only assets are her beauty, her cheongsams and an ability to seduce men. What unfolds is a tale of epic emotions. It is also a tale of growing up and the migrant experience in Australia.

“Everything that happens in The Home Song Stories actually happened in real life,” says Tony. “I had an extraordinary, wild traumatic childhood, largely due to the erratic behaviour of my charismatic but mentally unstable mother. My sister and I were buffeted by these events, but survived, mainly because of our love for each other. But also because, in spite of everything, we knew that our mother loved us. As a film maker, I knew that I was compelled to tell this story eventually.” Tony also had to get the permission of his sister and many of the artefacts that appear in the film actually belonged to their mother.

It’s the 60s and Rose (Joan Chen), beautiful but emotionally damaged, is singing in a Hong Kong nightclub. There she meets Bill (Steven Vidler), an Australian merchant seaman who, besotted by her exoticism, marries her and brings his bride and her two young children back to Melbourne to live his suburban ideal. Rose isn’t cut out for life in the suburbs, where she feels trapped like a caged bird, far, far away from her exotic nightlife. So, coiffed and always dressed as exotically as possible, she strikes out on her own while her husband is away at sea, cultivating men who the children must call ‘uncle’. Despite the caring, ever-forgiving husband who takes her back when her luck runs out, Rose falls for Joe (Yuwu Qi), a handsome but much younger Chinese man who, not unlike Bill, is intoxicated by her beauty and sophistication, despite her being twice his age.

Although Rose loves her children she is caught up in her own life and trouble looms when May blossoms into a young woman who will ultimately become a competitor for the affections of her mother’s lover. All the while Tom, whose only solace is an encyclopaedia he carries everywhere and kung fu films, is exasperated by what is going on but is powerless to intervene. He emotionally distances himself in order to survive. He believes if he reads an entire encyclopaedia he’ll know everything and therefore be immune from hurt.

Tony Ayres says one of the main themes he wanted to explore in the film is unrequited love. All the key players have a dream that they’re pursuing which unfortunately doesn’t include the other major characters. Ultimately the film is about a young boy’s relationship with his mother, about surviving against the odds and about love and all its trials. In many ways, it is a universal story that applies to anyone who has grown up with an erratic parent and whose childhood was dominated by fear, shame and constant instability. The Home Song Stories resonates across cultures in a finely honed drama that embraces universal themes.

The film is beautifully shot on widescreen by Nigel Bluck to evoke an era in Australia when eating in a Chinese restaurant was considered exotic. The film’s colour palette is predominantly green and blue, avoiding the more obvious red and black elements more common in Chinese cinema. Antony Partos’ score is distinguished by its distinctive, haunting music that blends traditional Chinese instruments with Western instrumentation and composition, thus providing a bridge between the eastern and western elements of the narrative. There is roughly an even mix of English and Chinese dialogue in the film.

Joan Chen is wonderfully wild and fragile as Rose. To add to the veracity and strength of her performance, Chen, like the character Rose, was born in Shanghai. She too speaks Mandarin as her first language and Cantonese as her second language. Chen expertly handles a character who is not always likeable but who nevertheless remains compellingly sympathetic. Veteran Australian actor Steven Vidler is solid as a man who stands by his wife despite the costs. Singaporean thespian Yuwu Qi, who plays Joe, was voted one of the ten Most Popular Male Artists in Singapore’s 2004 and 2005 Star Awards. Joel Lok steals the film as young Tom in a brilliantly nuanced performance from an eleven year-old making his acting debut. Irene Chen is well cast as May and Kerry Walker is formidable as the over-arching, misanthropic mother-in-law, Norma.

The Home Song Stories shares common themes with Romulus, My Father, Richard Roxburgh’s film of Raimond Gaita’s memoir of a migrant post-war childhood in Australia.

Tony Ayres first feature film, Walking on Water, premiered at the 2002 Berlin International Film Festival where it won the Teddy Award and later went on to win many Australian accolades as well. Ayres’ documentary Sadness, also won a swag of Australian film industry awards. In May, The Home Song Stories won the 2007 New South Wales (Australia) Premier’s Literary Award for Script Writing.