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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 


Tom (Darren Yap), now in his 40s, begins to write the memoirs of his 60s childhood, as the little boy (Joel Lok) whose mother Rose (Joan Chen), was a glamorous Shanghai nightclub singer. When Rose meets Aussie sailor Bill (Steve Vidler), they are quickly married, and she packs up Tom and his older sister May (Irene Chen) to head for Melbourne. The marriage just as quickly breaks up and Rose moves with the kids to Sydney. After a succession of male friends and little success, in 1971 Rose moves back to Melbourne, in an uncomfortable arrangement living again with Bill - and his mother. With Bill called away to sea, Rose takes up with young Chinese cook Joe (Qi Yuwu) but despair, and conflicts over May's relationship with Joe, tear the family further apart. Little Tom is deeply hurt, but May's ongoing conflict with her mother takes a respite when Rose tells her daughter about her traumatic teenage years.

Review by Louise Keller:
The defining stories of our lives are those powerful experiences of our childhood, which often mould us into the people we become. It is one such chapter from the tumultuous childhood of writer director Tony Ayres that best describes The Home Song Stories, portraying a vivid snapshot of a young boy juggling the weight of the world on his young, vulnerable shoulders. It is a childhood that revolves around his glamorous, flighty and unstable mother, where the only constant is the non-constant in the form of new homes, new places and ever-changing 'uncles'. The delicate issues of relationships and their emotional impact are beautifully described and the resulting film with its candid storytelling and superb performances is as haunting as it is affecting.

'Why do we have to move all the time?' Joel Lok's 11 year old Tom asks his mother Rose (Joan Chen), a former night club singer whose new Australian life with sailor Bill (Steven Vidler) is coloured with more than a tad of convenience. 'Be happy,' Rose tells her son, as she hangs the exquisite Chinese glass beaded curtain in one dowdy suburban home after another. Bill is one of two 'good men' in their lives. The other is Yuwu Qi's Joe, who falls in love with both Rose and her teenage daughter May (Irene Chen). On a backdrop of his mother's mood swings and pill abuse, Tom is a solitary child, playing bridge with three imaginary partners and reading the encyclopedia from start to finish, hoping to find all of life's knowledge in order to protect himself. Joan Chen is a knockout, imbuing a myriad of complexities to lovable, despicable Rose, and Lok, with his doe-eyes and angelic face, is a natural on screen. Irene Chen (no relation to Joan) is also terrific, and Ayres directs his cast with serene restraint.

Tom's experiences include many that no child should have to bear, yet this is a story of triumph and fortitude. It's a potently involving story, guaranteed to generate laughs and tears through the frivolous highs and devastating lows. I loved every minute of this emotionally rich tale, that resonates passionately and with truth. The Home Song Stories, my favourite Australian film of the year so far, is more than an illustration of a youngster's extraordinary life. It is a reflection, a cathartic memoir, a love story and a tribute to his unfathomable butterfly mother, the fundamental influence in his life.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
As complex and as multi-layered as any story based on truth usually is, The Home Song Stories is Tony Ayres' most accomplished, moving and mature work. Based on his own youth, the film explores the distress and despair that haunt Tom's young life; young Joel Lok is outstanding as little Tom, a child actor capable of capturing the truth of each moment he is on screen with a minimalist manner. The film owes much of its nuanced tone to Lok's presence, but Irene Chen as his older sister May, and Qi Yuwu as young lover Joe are also superb in major support roles.

Steve Vidler and Kerry Armstrong excel in small but pivotal roles as Rose's husband Bill and Bill's mother, each investing their characters with a depth that defies their short screen times. Joan Chen makes a remarkable Rose; weak, flawed and capricious, but her soul is always willing, even when her flesh is weak. Chen portrays the inner turmoil of a mother who knows she is failing her kids with a mix of pain and pride.

Meticulously designed so as to hide the design - but how can we not notice the 70s! - and accompanied by a beautiful orchestral score by Anthony Partos (lushly recorded at Trackdown in Sydney), the film offers plenty of audio visual pleasures.

Tony Ayres bookends the film with the adult Tom (Darren Yap) [representing the adult Tony] explaining that he is writing about his mother to keep her alive and so to forgive her. It's a moving end to a lovingly made film that remains truthful but never hides the brutal truths.

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(Aust, 2007)

CAST: Joan Chen, Yuwu Qi, Joel Lok, Irene Chen, Steven Vidler, Kerry Walker, Gabrielle Chan, Pearl Tan, Haven Tso

VOICES: Jamie Oxenbould

PRODUCER: Liz Watts, Michael McMahon

DIRECTOR: Tony Ayres

SCRIPT: Tony Ayres


EDITOR: Denise Haratzis

MUSIC: Anthony Partos


RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes



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