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Ghosts from the past turn up as real people when filmmaker Tony Ayres reveals his troubled childhood years and his mother’s complicated life in The Home Song Stories, which often disobeys cinematic conventions, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

When Tony Ayres sat down to write a screenplay based on his colourful childhood memories centred on his mother, he didn’t try to keep a distance from the events “because I wanted the emotions to communicate through the screenplay to the audience. So the film had to be personal but not private,” he explains, as we talk about what might well have been a painful, perhaps cathartic experience. His mother had not led her children on a totally blissful journey, as the film shows.

"a cathartic effect"

“It was when I was directing that I had to put on a new hat … the director has to be the first audience for the actors, so I can’t be making a personal psychodrama. That’s one reason I changed the names of the characters – I didn’t want there to be confusion when people spoke to me; I never thought of the characters as me, my sister or my mother. The writing did have a cathartic effect, not so much the directing.

But ever since he began promoting the film, people from his past have popped up: in Perth during a promotional stop he received a letter from George Ayres, his stepfather’s brother, “who I haven’t seen for 32 years … he wrote this letter criticising all of my factual mistakes, and ending the letter saying he held nothing but contempt for me.”

Ayres doesn’t seem upset now about it, but he admits it hurt. We’re at a café on Sydney’s busy Circular Quay with the winter sun warming our backs. Ayres recalls another incident: “Last night at the Q&A for the film, the son of my mother’s best friend turned up.” Even before the film was made, ghosts of the past came forth: “The day after I told my sister that I was writing the screenplay about our childhood, she bumped into Uncle Jo after all these years. I took that as a sign that my mother was blessing this project…” He says Uncle Jo’s full story is fascinating but there wasn’t room in the film to tell it. “It’ll be on the DVD …”

Of course, The Home Song Stories is not meant to be taken as a perfect re-enactment of Tony Ayres’ childhood days. He’s tried to capture the essence of his memories, and turned the episodic nature of such memories into a more or less seamless narrative. “But with biographical material you always have to disobey filmmaking conventions and that is exciting. And when it goes right, it goes right in a profound way.”

Ayres learnt a great deal while making the film. “For one thing I saw the importance of creating a functional family of filmmakers … the more functional we were as a unit, the more coherent the film…”

"a stupendous, award winning performance"

He also became more confident about controlling the visual elements, and confirmed his strengths in directing performance and is still in awe of his leading aldy, Joan Chen. “I knew, of course, she was a good actress, but I didn’t realise just how good. She gives a stupendous, award winning performance here. It’s hard enough to get an actress to reveal her age, but she was also prepared to show her deterioration …”

Published August 23, 2007

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Tony Ayres

Written & directed by Tony Ayres
Australian release: August 23, 2007
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.

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