The Home Song Stories



SYDNEY -- There's a fine line between deeply personal and self-indulgent. Chinese-Australian screenwriter-director Tony Ayres' "The Home Song Stories" sits just the wrong side of it.

Examining the ambiguity of his feelings toward his mercurial mother through this semi-autobiographical drama was undoubtedly cathartic. But, in the same way others' holiday snaps can become wearying, being asked to wallow in someone else's tragedy has limited appeal, and Ayres' closeness to the subject seems to have blinded him to the slackness of the narrative.

"Home," which moves on to the Adelaide Film Festival after Berlin, is a good-looking film with limited commercial appeal. It should generate interest on the festival circuit thanks to an intensely committed central performance by Joan Chen. Chen plays Rose, a Shanghai-born nightclub singer with a hard-knock background, who relies on her beauty and charm to get through, using a succession of men as meal tickets.

In the mid-1960s, Chen marries a sailor named Bill (Steve Vidler), another of the many "uncles" in her children's life, and they emigrate to Australia. The story is told through the eyes of young Tom (Joel Lok) who, with his older sister May (Irene Chen), is dragged pillar to post, from "uncle" to "uncle," when Rose up and leaves Bill after just a week in the new country.

Early expositional scenes drag. Rose finally goes back to the long-suffering Bill, clashes with his surly mother (Kerry Walker), moves a young lover in while her husband's away and is thrown out on her ear again. It's clear Ayres, whose debut feature "Walking on Water" won Berlin's Teddy Award in 2002, is more comfortable directing than writing. One shot of the glamorous Rose, poured into a jewel-colored cheongsam and sky-high heels, strutting peacock-proud past the drab, soul-destroying shop fronts of 1970s suburbia distills into a single image much of what Ayres struggles to say about his mother.

Tom, his cinematic stand-in, is torn throughout the film between love, despair, anger, disgust and admiration. Rose is painted alternately as a skilled emotional blackmailer and a damsel in distress. When she's up, the irresponsible good-time girl proves a fun companion to her children. But Rose's emotions always are roiling close to the surface.

When things start to go wrong with her new young love, Joe (Qi Yuwu), she clutches at her schoolboy son like a drowning woman, begging him to look after her, to save her. Ayres' script piles tragedy upon tragedy, with a numbing effect, until all we feel is a vague sense of despair with no chance of resolution.

Random fantasy sequences in which Tom vanquishes his enemies in kung-fu style prove an unnecessary distraction in an already unfocused screenplay. Performances overall are strong, though emotional arcs swing too wildly to get a true handle on the characters.

Production design is first-rate, with the ornamental trappings of Rose's exotic background forming a sharp contrast to the hideous 1970s decor of middle-class Australia. Perhaps garish shag-pile carpets and butt-ugly wallpaper were enough to kill the spirit of a beautiful foreign butterfly like Rose.

Dendy Films
Big & Little Films and Porchlight Films
Screenwriter-director: Tony Ayres
Producers: Liz Watts, Michael
Executive producers: Wouter Barendrecht, Michael J. Werner, Daniel Yun, Liz Koops
Director of photography: Nigel Bluck
designer: Melinda Doring
Music: Antony Partos
Costume designer: Cappi
Editor: Denise Haratzis
Rose: Joan Chen
Joe: Qi Yuwu
Tom: Joel Lok
May: Irene Chen
Bill: Steve Vidler
Norma: Kerry Walker
Running time -- 105 minutes
No MPAA rating