With immigration dominating the headlines in Australia as well as in Europe and the US, The Home Song Stories is a period film that gives a twist on current news - a lively melodrama about a roll-with-the-punches beauty whose long march through marriages and crises in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Sydney and Melbourne always seems to have a cloud over it. The saga based on a true story told by Rose Hong's children deploys Joan Chen as a tempestuous diva.
The film should play well in its native Australia, and Chen's presence in the cast should position it well in Hong Kong, China, Southeast Asia and anywhere else with a sizeable Chinese population. The DVD market for a Chen vehicle in star-struck China could also be strong.
The Home Song Stories is observed through the eyes of Tom and May (Joel Lok and Irene Chen), Rose's children, who are in tow every tortured step of the way. Her story begins in Australia in the 1960s.
She weds Bill (Steven Vidler), a well-meaning Melbourne Navy man who heard her sing in Hong Kong, but dumps the tender soul once she gets a passport, opting for the flashier immigrant-Chinese life of Sydney. (Asians were officially unwelcome as immigrants to Australia in those days, and Melinda Doring's production design recreates a provincial Down Under that was whiter and far more intolerant than it is today.)
The style of the film is realistic, but Chen is the diva here, and she flaunts it. Rose Hong, is fuming at full voice, always picking a fight and losing most of the time.
In Melbourne, she locks horns with her formidable mother-in-law and ends up with her children on the street in a battle that reflects the era's huge cultural gulf between Australians and Asians. Rose's solution to crises is as extreme as her temper.
Her Achilles heel is that she can't take a punch as well as she can give one. During almost two hours, she seems to be recovering from suicide attempts the way the rest of us treat hangovers.
Young Tom and teenaged May, struggling with their own growing pains as outsiders, watch in fear from the sidelines, until the blossoming May gets into the line of fire and learns that blood ties are no shield from her mother's wrath.
May catches the eye of Joe (Qi Yuwu), an illegal-immigrant restaurant cook whom Rose takes on as a beau, and the diva's jealousy erupts again.
True to the melodrama genre, a mother's love and her children's forgiveness eventually heal much of what's torn apart at every turn. A bedside pre-history that Rose confides to May (who is healing from her own suicide attempt) reveals the secret that Rose's fury stems from an abusive youth in Shanghai.
It all amounts to a lot of broken China, washed away by tears.
Big and Little Films
Michael J. Werner