The Home Song Stories, 103 mins, rating not yet available, opening in cinemas on 16 August 2007.
Fracture, 112 mins, rated M, opening in cinemas on 2 August 2007


(This is my review as  published in the August 2007 issue of The New South Wales Law Society Journal)

In my review of Romulus, My Father in the June 2007 NSW Law Society Journal, I mentioned the handful of Australian films that focus on the migrant experience. But art reflects life, and so in July we reviewed Lucky Miles, about refugees stranded in northern Australia, and in August we have The Home Song Stories.

This is the lightly fictionalised autobiography of Tony Ayres, the Australian writer/ director (Walking on Water, 2002, Sadness, 1999). Tony, who was born in Macau, is called Tom in the film. Tom is a Chinese-Australian man writing a script about his life. His script begins in 1964, with Tom as a small boy in Hong Kong, living with his mother, Rose, and older sister, May.

Although told from young Tom’s perspective, the story has at its centre the beautiful, glamorous and troubled Rose (played by the lovely Joan Chen), a nightclub singer and single mother, with a penchant for picking up new “uncles” for the children. As the film opens she has just hooked up with “Uncle” Bill, an Australian naval officer. Rose follows him to Melbourne and marries him, but a week later leaves him and takes the children to Sydney to see “Uncle” Wu. The next 7 years are years of drifting from one uncle to another, until in 1971 Rose decides her only option is to go back with the children to suburban Melbourne and Uncle Bill (now to be called “Daddy”).

The contrast between the early scenes in Hong Kong and the scenes in the Melbourne ‘burbs is stark. In one particularly memorable section of the film, Rose hangs out 5 exotic cheongsams on the Hills Hoist and then struts down the street in a vibrant blue one split high to the thigh, with matching parasol. She’s a knockout, but she’s also quite a shock to the locals. These two scenes paint a vivid picture of the culture clash described by the film.

The migrant family finds it hard to fit in. They all hate the Australian food. Tom’s Aussie playmates can be cruel, and the family finds it quite difficult living with Bill’s mother Norma (Kerry Walker, very funny) while Bill is away at sea. Rose is playful, and delightfully child-like at times, but often she goes too far, and Norma slings her disapproving looks. Finally Rose pushes her luck to breaking point and the family is out on the street again. None of Rose’s plans lasts long. She is restless and self-centred and her flightiness takes its toll on the children.

There are many twists and turns in the life of this little family. One involving young May is disturbing, and painful to observe. But I’m afraid the ordeal of watching one setback after another eventually wore me down. It is a hard thing to say of someone’s life story that it seemed indulgent and overlong, but that’s how it felt to me.

The film has been praised for its cinematography (by Nigel Bluck), and the wide screen format is used quite effectively. But choosing a muted colour palette of greens and browns for the scenes in the suburbs, broken only by Rose’s beautiful wardrobe in vibrant blue, black, orange and rose, makes the film seem murky. And deciding to film background scenes and subsidiary characters in soft focus – or even out-of-focus – makes for a blurry look overall. Despite this, the film has earned high praise on the international film festival circuit.

The Home Song Stories certainly portrays the clash of cultures very well, and Ayres and his team imbue the film with a great sense of time and place, with meticulous sumptuous production and costume design. Yet I found myself wanting more.

If a home-grown story like this is not your cup of tea, you might like to see Fracture, a thriller (which I have not yet seen) starring Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson, 2006). When a meticulous structural engineer (Hopkins) discovers that his beautiful (much younger) wife is having an affair, he plans the perfect murder. Gosling plays the young and ambitious district attorney who prosecutes him.

The film is described by its makers as “a tense duel of intellect and strategy”. It was directed by Gregory Hoblit, who also made the fairly routine crime thriller Primal Fear (1996). Also in the cast is the ever-reliable David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck), so the cast alone makes it worth a look.