The Home Song Stories made its debut at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, and I've waited a long time for it to come to our shores. A joint Singapore-Australian production, it's an autobiographical story of writer-director Tony Ayres' childhood, of what he remembers about his mother, a songstress who uprooted her children and migrated from Hong Kong to Australia, and their struggles to etch a living surviving in a strange land.
When watching the film, I can't help but to remember Alfonso Cuaron's Great Expectations, where Ethan Hawke's Finn narrated a line early in the movie, stating quite clearly he's not going to tell the story the way it happened, but rather he's telling it the way he remembered it. And this rings very true in Ayres' Home Song Stories. Stories from within are always heartfelt and sincere, and that's what this movie brings across - the feeling that it's from deep down, and that of honesty. Like how the movie started with the Chinese oldie "Bu Liao Qing", mirroring the style the story was told and the narrative being measured, powerful, and very meaningful.
What made it work was the excellent acting all round. Of late I've enjoyed Joan Chen's movies these days, compared to her earlier works (like Judge Dredd or On Deadly Ground). Aging like fine wine, her maturity brings about certain gravitas and also likability as she takes on more adult roles, and it's no doubt my favourites were her motherly roles in Saving Face, Jasmine Women, and now, Home Song Stories. Here, she plays Rose, one who lives on the fast lane in Hong Kong, with some untold secrets from the past. In order to give her two children the best life she could, she milks her looks for what it's worth because of her lack of ability and skill, and for some reason, succumbs to her weakness for men quite easily, falling fast and falling hard, flitting from man to man, being unlucky in love, and providing some headache and embarrassment for her children, who do not know what to make out of the "Uncles" that come through the door.
And Qi Yuwu, no doubt bolstered by his cinematic appearance in 881, gets a meatier role with dialogue. He stars as Joe the illegal immigrant, the young man whom Rose falls for, and becomes surrogate father to her children, and yet, having this threatening air that he has some ulterior motives set on Rose's daughter May (Irene Chan). You might think he's a cad, what with his 70s look and that glint in the eye, but overall, he's someone whom you'll compare with Bill (Steven Vidler), the Australian sailor whom Rose comes to Australia for. Putting both Bill and Joe side by side and the choice is obvious for Rose, but alas, the ditzy indecisiveness of womanhood causes great despair amongst her loved ones.
More so for her son Tom, played by Joel Lok. The narrative stems from his point of view, and Lok is the absolute winner here, in fleshing out Tom, the kid who lives in his fantasies, a form of escapism to a very confused childhood. You might think that he's able to take the blows in his stride, but I guess everyone, including a kid, has his own patience. You feel his pain, his confusion, his tears as he struggles to understand his mother's actions. He loves her, yet hates her, and Lok displays a masterful performance here that you might think he's a veteran. This kid's charming, pure and simple.
There are many plus points in this movie which makes it exquisite, and the wonderful songs used accentuates the era of that time perfectly. What made it work too was that the characters aren't forced to speak only one language, highlighting their multi-lingual nature quite naturally as they converse in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, which makes it seem more realistic rather than staged. It showcases growing pains really well, of relationships amongst siblings and with a single parent, and what I thought was one of the most powerful run up to an unforgettable scene, was a reminder that when dealing with people, to always be mindful of the hateful words we use. They might be said in the fit of a moment, but they always hurt bad, because everyone has feelings. Like the Chinese saying goes, once it's uttered, it's extremely difficult to retract, and the consequence of it could be damaging or devastating.
At its core, The Home Song Stories evokes painful memories, but also brings about the notion of forgiveness, remembering and honouring those memories. A mother's love knows no bounds, even if she behaves in a manner you cannot quite grasp at the moment. Stay tuned when the end credits roll, as you get to see a little more of Ayres' life and times, and of course, his real mother, put together in a photo montage. This is one movie which you definitely must watch this week. Highly recommended!