Home Song Stories

August 23rd, 2007 Film, Film Reviews, Personalities, Xpress

There are few people more reviled than those who are born privileged, grow up attractive, enjoy riches beyond measure or have a generally great life. Just look at Tom Cruise and Paris Hilton.

There’s a peculiar hallmark of our cultural consciousness that we like people to have suffered. We don’t like anybody to do well in life if we don’t believe they deserve it or have paid some sort of penance for it. If we see someone drive up in a beautiful car or living in a beautiful house we like to think they’ve endured suffering or deprivation, the life they now enjoy a reward for it. If not, we instinctively hope they’ll take a fall.

As such, films about adversity are much more acceptable to us than those about happy people doing nice things. Yes, conflict is the basis for all drama, but there’s almost a dramatic subgenre of films depicting people living through the worst possible abuse or circumstances that attract critical kudos almost by default.

Such a film is Home Song Stories, the autobiographical movie from writer/director Tony Ayers, who came to Australia in the last 60s from Hong Kong with his sister and nightclub singer mother, spending the next ten years moving from one surrogate father to another while his well meaning but terminally conceited and bitter mother gradually unravelled.

Xpress suggests to Ayers over the phone that Home Song Stories might keep people away when word gets around how sad it is. "I guess there are lots of successful films that aren’t necessary happy stories," is all he offers.

Because Home Song Stories is a thoroughly miserable movie. Don’t see it unless you’re in the absolute best of moods. As a child, Ayers and his older sister endured everything from racism to (as the film depicts) a beating bordering on child abuse, his mother doing her best to bring her children up but too bitter about her fading glory and looks and too haunted that she’s made all the wrong decisions (she has) too hold it together for them.

"I guess I wanted the audience to feel as though this was a complex character," Ayers says. "There’s a danger some people will absolutely hate her and other people will be compassionate to her. In part the idea was that there’s good mothers and bad mothers and the responsibilities of mothers are what makes the character interesting.

"A lot of women have responded very sympathetically to [Ayer’s mother, portrayed by Joan Chen] Rose and some men have been hostile. There’s been an interesting division in people’s reaction to her, and that’s the sort of film I find most interesting, where the characters are larger than life and they draw an emotional response from you by having shades of darkness and shades of light."

Home Song Stories must have been an incredibly cathartic and traumatic experience for Ayers, not only dredging up memories but seeing them acted out in front of him — memories he admits he was angry towards his mother about for a long time.

"Researching the characters and making the film has certainly helped me understand her more," Ayers says, "even though some of the things she did were pretty difficult to understand. As a child you really just want your mother to be normal and have a happy, ordinary life, so the things you resent are the ways your mother doesn’t fulfil those desires. As an adult you get some perspective on why people fail to fulfil those expectations.

"Even writing the script I learnt more about her background and the transmission of trauma that she experienced from her mother. Those things help frame the story and give a context to Rose’s behaviour."

The behaviour of his mother ranged between appalling and nonsensical, and even though Ayers believes from his own experience that kids are stronger than we give them credit for (‘The life you have it is the life you know’), his was a childhood of hardship and suffering the likes of which makes critically lauded movies. Whether that’s one you want to watch (or endure) is up to you…

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