Writer/director Tony Ayres trawls the details of his own life for this story about a Shanghai nightclub singer (Joan Chen) who struggles to raise her two children after moving to Australia in the seventies.
Watching this film I couldn't help but think it could've been called Rose, My Mother, so pronounced are its similarities to Romulus, My Father. Again we have a period-set Australian film charting the deadly dysfunction of an immigrant family as seen through the eyes of a young boy who survives.
To its credit, The Home Song Stories stakes out distinct turf. That's because this is writer-director Tony Ayres unflinching account of his own childhood – so it feels personal. And it's a film of sheer beauty, in Ayre's direction and especially in Joan Chen's tragically glamorous performance.
She's Rose, a nightclub singer from Shanghai who meets Australian sailor Bill in Hong Kong in 1964. They move with her two children – May and Tom – to Melbourne, where she marries Bill – only to leave a week later.
For years, Rose bounces from lover to lover, with her children bewildered by each new “Uncle” and their mother's galloping suicidal sadness. For Tom and May, Rose is as devoted as she is destructive. And while hope for stability arises when Rose meets Joe, a Chinese restaurant worker, their pocket of tranquillity soon turns tragic.
The characters are well developed and always sadly believable. Chen does a great job of conveying duality: the free-spirit who lives for the instant, yet remains a tortured soul anchored to a traumatic past. However, I did feel the film would've been strengthened if we learned Rose's backstory earlier.
And while Rose's behaviour pattern – she leaves, she returns, she tries to kill herself – are emblematic of the vicious circle she's trapped in. It does make the film feel repetitive from a cinematic perspective.
Visually, this is a dazzling piece of work and you're unlikely to see a better looking local film released this year. Tony Ayres has a real artist's eye, making this bittersweet 1970s suburban niche both familiar and exotic.
For me, Joan Chen and the director's vision really bring this tragic tale to life - 3 ½ stars.