A finely chiseled drama about an unstable Chinese mother struggling to reconcile her desires with her children’s needs in early ’70s Australia, “The Home Song Stories” speaks bittersweet truths about life in the Chinese diaspora. With a dynamic lead perf by Joan Chen, this autobiographical second feature by (Macau-born) helmer-writer Tony Ayres looks set for lengthy fest engagements following its Berlin world preem. Its roughly even mix of English and Chinese dialogue will assist Asian sales, though its generally downbeat tone may hinder wider exposure. Strong local biz appears likely on its skedded August rollout.
A significant advance on Ayres’ 2002 debut, AIDS-themed meller “Walking on Water,” pic succinctly establishes a deeply personal tone in a prologue narrated by Tom (Darren Yap). He’s a Chinese Australian writer tapping out a script about his life, beginning when he was a small boy in 1964.
With luxuriant visuals that wouldn’t be out of place in “In the Mood for Love,” locale switches to a Shanghai nightclub where Tom’s single mother, Rose (Joan Chen), is a chanteuse hotting up the libidos of Western servicemen. Accepting a proposal from Australian sailor Bill (Steven Vidler), Rose packs Tom (Joel Lok) and daughter May (Irene Chen, no relation to Joan) and takes them to Melbourne with her to join Bill, but ends up walking out on him after only seven days.
Skipping through a seven-year spell in which mom and kids drift from one Chinese “uncle” to the next in Sydney, story settles back in Melbourne, where the desperate Rose has returned to live with the amazingly forgiving Bill and his mistrusting mother, Norma (Kerry Walker). This reunion ends when Rose hooks up with boytoy Joe (Qi Yuwu), a chef at a restaurant where Rose scrubs pots and pans.
It’s during Rose’s tempestuous shack-up with Joe that her children move into sharper and more enriching focus. Now a clever 10 year-old, Tom has begun to assess his mother’s erratic ways. Meanwhile, teen May’s blossoming beauty has been noticed (but no more) by Joe, prompting Rose to see red and return yet again to Bill.
Ayres’ script touchingly reflects on how circumstance can reverse the roles of children and their parents. Recovering from an overdose, Rose pleads with her kids to save her from herself.
Speckled with cross-cultural humor in its first two-thirds, film assumes a much darker — and slightly less satisfying — complexion as Rose makes one too many trips to the emergency ward. But tale recovers with a critical flashback to Rose’s past and a poignant wrap-up.
In the showcase lead role, Joan Chen expertly comes to grips with the multifaceted Rose, and ensures the not always likable character is never less than compelling on screen. Supports are spot-on, with young debutants Lok and Irene Chen confidently handling some demanding scenes, and Singapore-based thesp Qi showing more than just good looks.
Graceful, subtly framed widescreen lensing by Nigel Bluck tops a smooth tech package, with ace production design and costuming, and an effective score using Chinese and Western instruments.