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Empathy for an emotionally abusive mother

The Home Song Stories: 103 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Tony Ayres. Starring: Joan Chen, Yuwu Qi, Joel Lok, Irene Chen, Steven Vidler, Kerry Walker, website 

Seeking compassion for emotionally difficult motherTo say Melbourne writer/director Tony Ayres’ new film is a personal project would be an understatement. But while The Home Song Stories draws heavily upon true events from Ayres’ own childhood, this is not, he insists, the intimate self-portrait it may first appear to be.

“It’s a fictional film based on true events,” Ayres clarifies. “Even though everything actually happened, I had to fill in a lot of gaps, and make suppositions.”

“The film was a constant tussle between the unwieldiness of real life, and my attempts to shape it into a dramatic film,” he adds. “At the end of the day I had to separate myself from the pictures in my head, regard the characters as characters in their own right, and make them understandable and coherent in their own terms.”

The film centres on Ayres’ mother Rose (Joan Chen), a Chinese nightclub singer who follows Aussie sailor Bill (Vidler) to Melbourne in 1964, with young Tom (Ayres’ alter-ego, played by Lok) and his older sister, May (Irene Chen) in tow.

Rose is a self-centred, even emotionally abusive character, who leaves Bill after a week of marriage, then returns seven years later to attempt to reconcile, only to commence an affair with a charismatic (and younger) Chinese immigrant, Joe (Qi).

The film is jarringly episodic, but unfolds with a certain emotional rawness, focusing particularly on the impact Rose’s destructive behaviour has on her children. When Joe starts to show an interest in the blossoming and beautiful May, it triggers a string of devastating events with an inevitably tragic outcome.

Seeking compassion for emotionally difficult mother“What’s weird is that people expect that making the movie was a cathartic experience for me,” says Ayres. “But to be honest, I don’t feel that.”

“Having lived through it, and told the story to people, I know it’s an extraordinary series of events—if I’d been told this story by someone else I would have thought, [I’d like to] turn it into a film. It’s based on my childhood, but in making it I had to distance myself. In lots of ways those issues aren’t burning issues for me.

“Having said that, I wouldn’t have made it unless those issues affected me and unless I felt a need to tell that story. But the story doesn’t necessarily still haunt me.”

On the other hand, Ayres admits that, like the film’s narrator—the adult Tom—he hoped that by making this film he would gain a better understanding of his mother, and “come to grips with her character; that person who so profoundly affected me.”

“I didn’t know about my mother’s past. The story Rose tells May in the hospital [about a traumatic series of events that preceded the birth of Rose’s children] was part of a story my mother told my sister when they were both in hospital. The difference is that in real life, my mother got my sister to write the story down.”

While Ayres’ sister filled in some of the historical blanks, Joan Chen, the actress portraying Rose, helped Ayres gain some previously elusive insights into his mother’s nature and motivations.

“As an actor she has to defend her character, and carry her in a way she understands. So we had a lot of discussions about what her motives might be, why she was doing the things that she’s doing.”

Although The Home Song Stories is a film about Chinese migrants living in suburban Melbourne during the 1960s and 1970s, its themes go beyond “the migrant experience” in Australia.

“It’s my story and I happen to be Chinese,” he says. “It’s secondary in a sense. But I do think it’s important that we hear such stories and see them on our screens, simply because that’s what Australia is. We are a nation of many different ethnic groupings, and I think that’s important to see on the screen.”

In short, Ayres hopes his film’s impact will occur on the more personal, rather than social or cultural, level.

“I would hope the audience would feel a sense of the resilience of childhood, and some kind of compassion for this difficult, struggling woman,” he says. “I wanted to create an emotional experience for the audience; tell an emotional story.”

Tony Ayres has been nominated in the Original Feature Film category of the AWGIE Awards - the awards for the Australian Writers Guild, which take place on 31 August in Sydney.



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