The Home Song Stories – Tony Ayres

I saw this film as part of the Sydney Film Festival.

It is written and directed by Tony Ayres, and is based on his own turbulent childhood.

It’s probably easiest to plunder a few other synopses at this point.

“The film is narrated by Tom, a Chinese Australian writer working on a script about his life, beginning when he was a small boy in 1964. The film follows this narrative, charting the nightclub singer’s journey from Hong Kong to Melbourne, her tumultuous love life and the hardships endured by Tom and his sister. As the kids grow up fatherless in a strange land, they learn to fend for themselves and become surrogate parents to their own erratic mother.”


“The story follows Rose (Joan Chen), a Hong Kong nightclub singer who comes to Melbourne, Australia on the arm of Australian Sailor Bill (Steve Vidler) along with her two children Tom (Joel Lok) and May (Irene Chen). After seven days, she leaves him and heads to Sydney, where she dates a succession of men before returning seven years later to her incredibly forgiving husband and his suspicious mother (Kerry Walker). The reunion is short lived though as she soon embarks on an affair with the considerably younger chef (Qi Yuwu) from the local Chinese restaurant while her husband is away at sea. Rose is a torn woman, on one hand she is a caring and disciplined mother but she is also a passionate woman wanting to live life to its fullest.” 

I don’t want to be a plot spoiler, so I won’t give everything away. Even the film only covers part of Ayres’ upbringing, which had quite a few subsequent dramatic turns (if you must, you can google these to a story in The Age a few years ago).

There is a French film, which I have seen twice on SBS but whose title I have been unable to google to life (can anyone help me here?), which covers similar ground. It is based on the life of two brothers and their mother, who struggles to manage as a North African immigrant who has gone to France at about the same time.

In both films, the mother has emigrated to escape oppression (I can’t readily think of a less clichéd word) in her home country which has already left her psychologically scarred. Both films have the twin themes of, first, children’s experience and observation of a non-coping parent and, second, an immigrant childhood.

D, at whose instigation and with whom I went, found the film boring. This was not because of its subject matter (we have since discussed the film vigorously and at length) but because it was slow. Ayres has clearly struggled to give the story dramatic shape, but in the end his closeness and fidelity to his material (even though I am sure that a lot of “shaping” has taken place) has limited his capacity to do so. The nature of the material probably resists shaping, because a childhood with such a parent will involve a succession of episodes whose effect is cumulative. As a result, though other reviews I have read have identified a turning point in the film, this was not immediately apparent to me while I was actually watching it – and hence the longeurs.

What interested me more was the strength of D’s reaction against the “bad woman” and “bad parent” (these two together are more complex than just “bad mother”), Rose. He judged her against his own mother, who is of a similar background (Shanghai) and generation. To me, this shows the strength of what “difficult” people can find themselves up against. Is it surprising then that such people often then become more “difficult”?

The film is beautifully made, with a few “film buff”-ish genre tributes. The part of Rose is an actress’s gift, and Joan Chen gives a powerful performance. Qi Yuwu, as her younger lover, is also a bit of a spunk. The other main characters were in the main well cast. The one exception is the depiction of the step-father’s mother, played by Kerry Walker. Even allowing for the fact that the film’s point of view is the son’s, I thought this strayed unduly towards caricature.

It was clear from the Q&A session which followed that this film resonates strongly with many, particularly those who have grown up as immigrants. Unfortunately, its slowness will probably limit its box-office appeal.

One Response to “The Home Song Stories – Tony Ayres”

  1. Ghosts « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] Stumbling on melons Just another weblog « The Home Song Stories – Tony Ayres […]

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