Hong Kong, 1964. An Australian sailor, Bill (Steve Vidler), falls in love with a beautiful Chinese nightclub singer, Rose (Joan Chen). Their courtship and Bill’s proposal of a new life for her and her two children, May (Irene Chen) and Tom (Joel Lok), lead Rose to pack their belongings into a single trunk and leave by ship for Australia. Rose, a refugee from Mainland China, is a Mandarin-speaker. What Cantonese she has she speaks with a Shanghai accent. Presumably, she has a smattering of English as her romance with Bill can’t all have been wordless, and there’s no sign that he speaks Cantonese. Marriage to Bill means life in a post-war brick veneer bungalow in Melbourne’s outer suburbs. Finding herself in a country that can’t tell the difference between a chink, a gook or a nip, Rose’s culture shock is as profound as that of any Tablelands farmboy washing up in Siam.
Rose promptly flees with the children to Sydney and the relative comfort of the Chinese diaspora culture surrounding the restaurants in Sydney’s Chinatown. For seven years this fragile family drifts from place to place and from ‘uncle’ to ‘uncle’ until 1971 when there are no more uncles left. Rose deals her last card: they return to Melbourne and move back in with Uncle Bill. Following on the heels of an already turbulent opening, we are told that 1971 was the year that everything changed.
From the relative comfort of a writer’s study in Melbourne ‘today’, The Home Song Stories is narrated by the adult Tom (Darren Yap). Tom tells us that if everyone has one story which defines them, then this is his: it is the story of his childhood, his sister and most of all it is the story of his mother. And indeed The Home Song Stories is based upon the childhood experiences of the film’s writer and director, Tony Ayres. There’s perhaps just a little vanity in Ayres’ casting of the strikingly handsome and muscular (for a careerist writer) Darren Yap as his alter ego, the adult Tom, but it is forgivable because all of the characters are played on screen by very beautiful actors. And although the story is both deeply personal and traumatic (it could have been melodrama in lesser hands), this is where all vanity ends. This is not therapy, it is artful storytelling.
Ayres’ first feature film, Walking On Water (2002), garnered some critical attention but he is probably best known for his award-winning 1999 documentary Sadness. Both of these works dealt with love and the catastrophic swathe that AIDS cut through Australian gay communities. In The Home Song Stories, Ayres turns his attention to the two most important women in his life: his sister and his mother.
Mother and son
There is a thesis to be written about the ambiguous role mothers play in the Australian cinematic psyche. In film after film, mothers are ambivalently portrayed as nags and an embarrassment to the hero or heroine. Simple and uncultured, they’re food providers who, often as not, withhold their love and even themselves, liable to die of cancer before the third act. From Mad Max to Muriel, Careful, He Might Hear You (Carl Schultz, 1983) to Soft Fruit (Christina Andreef, 1999), mothers in Australian films are a powerful absence (even when they’re present).
The Home Song Stories is a mature and reflective portrait of a difficult woman and mother who was mercurial, manipulative, selfish, generous, fiercely loving, strong, weak, happy, sad. For Ayres, whose mother suffered bouts of extreme depression and attempted suicide a number of times during his childhood, this film is his torch song. As Ayres notes:
Everything that happens in The Home Song Stories actually happened in real life. I had an extraordinary, wild, traumatic childhood, largely due to the erratic behaviour of my beautiful, 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 filmmaker, I knew that I was compelled to tell this story eventually.Tony Ayres quoted in Production Information, The Home Song Stories, http://www.homesongstories.com Accessed 24 July 2007.
The story traverses some six decades – from Rose’s unhappy Shanghai childhood (as the brutalized youngest daughter) to a bad marriage as a child bride, to the nightclub world of sixties Hong Kong and on to sixties and seventies Melbourne and Sydney. But most of all, this story is about the intense, even claustrophobic, interiority of a family unit made up of a mother and her two children, each born to a different man, living an extraordinary life on the margins of mainstream Australia in the sixties and seventies.
For all her independence Rose is a fragile woman. Her salad years of living by her beauty, sexuality and wits are coming to a close. When she meets Joe (Qi Yuwu), a younger man who cooks in the local Chinese restaurant, her son Tom feels an Oedipal threat: this ‘uncle’ is going to come between him and his mother’s love. This threat, previously expressed by sudden nosebleeds, is now played out in a wonderful dream sequence with martial arts wire-work emulating the action films of Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers.
Unlike Rose, who through her marriage to Bill holds Australian citizenship, Joe is an illegal immigrant who could be caught and deported at any time. Suddenly, perhaps too suddenly for young Joe, what began as a sexual affair has landed him as sole breadwinner for an older woman, her son and adolescent daughter, who is gradually eclipsing her mother’s beauty.
Many moments echo and reverberate the theme of Rose’s fall. Rose, young and exotic in her blue silk cheongsam and stiletto heels, is shown strutting and clip-clopping along the shady suburban shopping strip on her way to the local Chinese diner, and then some years later, trudging back the same way, burdened and frail from her day’s work as a dishwasher in the same restaurant.
Making a home away from home
There is nothing grandiose about The Home Song Stories. Everything is precise. The cinematography is delicately framed and beautifully lit in cold and reflective blues. When there is camera movement it is subtle and fluid, dependent entirely upon character and action. As a Melburnian who grew up in the seventies, I adored the period wallpapers and furnishings, so carefully sourced, right down to the forty-page, 1970 Melways street directory slapped on Joe’s dashboard.
The Home Song Stories is also a migration story and yes, it is a tale about being the only Asian face among, if not hostile, then parochial whites. The television of the era gives us two absurd situations. The first sees Rose, Joe, May and Tom sitting down to watch The Partridge Family, gnawing on sticks of fresh sugar cane while Rose’s mother-in-law (Kerry Walker) looks in upon them – barely concealing her horror and disbelief – with her girlfriends from the bowls club beside her. The TV is a useful tool for both its cringe value as well as revealing just how whitebread Melbourne was in 1971. In another TV moment we hear how the Australian accent has since shifted away from a nasal cockney, when a girl on the high school quiz show It’s Academic pronounces the vowel ‘i’ as ‘oi’.
Pared back to only what is necessary to tell it, the story does suffer from some glaring historical omissions. Mao’s Cultural Revolution – perhaps the reason Rose fled Shanghai – is not mentioned. Nor is the Vietnam War, yet it has to be the reason Uncle Bill is called up in 1971 to serve in the Royal Australian Navy. Finally, there is another autobiographical story for Ayres yet to tell, as at the conclusion of The Home Song Stories, while we know about May’s father, Rose’s first and deepest love, we know nothing about the man who fathered Tom.
What I am certain of is that The Home Song Stories has been lived. By this I mean that it has been repressed, told, denied, forgotten, lied about, examined, reconsidered, written, torn up, written again (and again and again) until the author has struck a compromise between his need to share this deeply personal and painful part of his life, which defines his very identity, and the public’s demand to receive their popcorn entertainment without being equally traumatised. Take tissues.