Soon after Rose (Joan Chen) returns to live with ‘Uncle Bill’ in Melbourne, Bill goes back to sea for four months, leaving her in the house with his disapproving mother (Kerry Walker). Rose decides to seek new friends. At the nearest Chinese restaurant she walks into the kitchen and introduces herself to Ah Yin, who calls herself Winnie (Gabrielle Chan). She also meets Joe (Qi Yuwu), a handsome young chef. Summary by Paul Byrnes.
Rose’s washing of her dresses is like the baiting of her hook. The shot of her at the Hills hoist gives a strong sense of drudgery and suburbia that she’s determined to avoid. The shot of her walking along the street, dressed to kill, gives a startling sense of her sensuality and female confidence. Rose has never found it hard to attract a man but she does find it impossible to be without one. Joe, who’s 20 years younger, will be her next lover.
In Hong Kong in 1964, a beautiful nightclub singer meets an Australian naval officer. Rose (Joan Chen) comes to Australia with her two young children, Tom and May, but leaves Bill (Steven Vidler) after one week of marriage. Seven years and many boyfriends later, Rose has nowhere to go. She moves back in with ‘Uncle Bill’, under the disapproving eye of his mother Norma (Kerry Walker). When Bill goes to sea again, Rose brings home her latest lover, a young Chinese immigrant called Joe (Qi Yuwu), so Norma kicks her out. They move to a dingy flat with ‘Uncle Joe’, where Tom (Joel Lok), who’s now about ten, has to share a room with his sister May (Irene Chen), who’s about 14. Rose takes an overdose of pills after a fight with Joe – not for the first time. She survives, but the recovery is shattered when she realises that Joe is in love with May. Rose attacks her daughter, and both end up in hospital. Tom, alone and angry, is sent to stay with ‘Uncle Bill’ again. May makes her brother promise to keep their mother safe, but nothing can save Rose. Many years later Tom, now a writer, is still haunted by the memories of his childhood, and a mother he is still trying to understand.
The Home Song Stories is a largely true story, which makes it even more shattering as a portrait of a family. Tony Ayres describes it as an autobiographical tearjerker, or ‘weepie’, but that is perhaps his way of controlling the story’s power. The script, he has said, took him three years to write. He imagined he was trying to write a film about his mother; eventually he realised it was a story about a boy’s loss of innocence. The beginning and ending, in which a writer is seen typing at a desk, gives us the sense that it’s also about the man that boy became, and the memories he is still trying to make sense of.
Beneath the family drama, it is also a story about migrants, and the speed with which children adapt. ‘Home’ has at least two meanings here – there is the home in China, the mother country, and there is the lack of stable sense of home in Australia. The family keeps moving as Rose’s relationships fall apart. Tom has no friends because they never stay long enough in one place. Nevertheless, in the seven years between arriving in 1964 and 1971, when most of the story takes place, both children have become Australianised in a way that Rose can never become. This, we assume, may be part of what ails her – although the script doesn’t overstate her disaffection with Australia. The causes of Rose’s mental deterioration are more complex and some of them come with her, in a personality that was already deeply scarred (not that either child understands this until much later).
The film succeeds largely on the basis of the performances, which are uniformly superb. Joan Chen’s Rose is a tour de force, perhaps the best role of an already distinguished international career. She goes from gorgeous siren, striding confidently through suburban Melbourne streets in a beautiful cheongsam dress, to a screaming harpy with mental problems. At the same time, Rose is almost always a sympathetic character; we can always read her emotions and sense a reason for her behaviour. She is also capable of great joy and love for her children, at least until her spirit is broken.
The performances of Joel Lok and Irene Chen, as the older children, are equally remarkable. Ayres makes great use of the boy’s eyes, giving us a sense that Tom misses nothing but says very little, storing up the frustration and hurt because he doesn’t know what else to do with it. There’s also a strong sense of the glamour that the boy feels from his mother, with her film star looks and her trunk of beautiful silk dresses. That helps to balance the sense of accusation, which could easily have derailed the script. The film would fail if audiences simply condemned Rose as a bad mother, but that is unlikely, because we can see her partly through the eyes of both children, as well as through her own sense of self. It’s a profoundly moving film on many levels.
Notes by Paul Byrnes
This clip set in the 1960s shows Rose (Joan Chen), a recent Chinese immigrant, angered that her Australian husband Bill (Steven Vidler) has departed for four months. Rose seeks familiarity and company at a local Chinese restaurant. Dressed in a glamorous outfit she walks along suburban streets to the restaurant, where she ignores the waitress and walks directly into the kitchen. She flirts with the young cook Joe (Qi Yuwu) and discovers that she and Winnie (Gabrielle Chan) would have been neighbours in Hong Kong. The clip is in English and Cantonese with subtitles.
Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia
This clip starts approximately 1 hour 8 minutes into the feature.
Rose sits up in bed, talking to Bill as he packs his suitcase.
Rose You go how long?
Bill Four months, tops. It’ll go quickly.
Rose Your mother? She stay?
Bill Look, I know it’s not what we planned, but it’ll work out, I promise.
He gives Rose some money.
Bill I’ll send more as soon as I can.
Bill picks up his suitcase and belongings and leaves. There is intense music as Rose smashes a lamp.
We see Rose putting the washing out on the clothesline.
Rose walks through the local shopping strip in a beautiful traditional Chinese outfit, and immaculate hair and make-up. She enters a Chinese restaurant.
Waitress Do you need a menu?
Rose continues walking and enters the kitchen.
Rose Hello. Ni hao ma.
Rose and Winnie speak Cantonese.
Joe You have to order from the waitress.
Rose I don’t want what you serve Australians. I want to see your real Chinese food. Is your tofu fresh?
Joe You have to try it.
Rose eats a piece of tofu.
Winnie Who are you?
Rose I’ve just moved here from Hong Kong.
Winnie You don’t sound like you’re from Hong Kong.
Rose I grew up in Shanghai. My Cantonese isn’t very good.
Winnie You speak with a Shanghai accent.
Waitress Table five is in a hurry.
Rose You’re from Hong Kong aren’t you?
Rose Where did you live?
Rose I lived there too. Which street?
Winnie Tsim Sha Tsui.
Rose So we were neighbours. I lived in Hau Fook Street. My name is Rose.
Winnie I’m Ah Yin, call me Winnie.
Rose Ni hao.
Winnie Ni hao.
Joe (in English) Joe. My name is Joe.