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Torch Song

It has always struck me as odd that in a country that places great store in the overseas (read Hollywood) success of ‘our actors’ – as in ‘our’ Nic, ‘our’ Naomi, ‘our’ Russ, ‘our’ Cate – film reviewing culture has not developed a stronger analysis of performance as one of the elements of cinema. Australian film reviewers seem to be split between the traditionalist aesthetic humanists, such as At the Movies’ David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz, who tend to isolate performance from mise en scène (though they are more attuned to the relationship between script and performance), and those who celebrate pop culture and whose investment in genre cinema makes them largely uninterested in the actor’s craft. There are exceptions, of course – the most obvious and exemplary being a critic like Adrian Martin (www.rouge.com.au). The disinterest in the director’s relationship to performance can sideline some of our more interesting film-makers.

Tim Burstall makes for an unlikely but I think apt example. Though it’s great to see him finally receiving kudos for many of his ‘exploitation’ films that were unceremoniously dismissed in the 1970s and 1980s, even those critics who now valorise him have little to say about his work with actors, especially his exploration of Australian masculinity in films as diverse as Endplay, Alvin Purple, Petersen and most particularly The Last of the Knucklemen.

I’ve just seen Tony Ayres’ Home Song Stories. Set in the early 1970s, and based on the director’s own life story, the film follows Rose, a Hong Kong torch singer, who falls in love with an Australian sailor and moves to suburban Melbourne taking her two children with her. The film features an astonishing ensemble performance. Credit must go to the individual actors: Joan Chen’s Rose is seductive and dangerous, indulgent and self-obsessed; Irene Chen as May, her teenage daughter, manages to convince completely as an adolescent both excited by, and fearful of, her emerging sexuality; Joel Lok as the director’s eleven-year-old alter ego, Tom, is simply wonderful, in a performance free of sentimentality or awkwardness. Qi Yuwu, Steven Vidler and Kerry Walker are also excellent.

There are, however, scenes and moments that do not work: the reductionist representation of Walker’s Australian grandmother, the poorly staged dream sequences involving Tom, and a clumsy, unnecessary flashback that tries to ‘explain’ Rose but adds nothing that performance and the film-making has not already supplied for us.

But Home Song Stories is assured as narrative, a fascinating, stylised but authentic vision of 1970s suburbia, a richly textured and felt drama: all this points to a director who knows what he is doing. Central to the success of the film is Ayres’ gift for working with actors, evident in his first feature film, Walking on Water. Though the performances were excellent (particularly by Vince Colosimo and Maria Theodorakis), that film lost narrative urgency and drive – I wanted it to be better than it was. I felt as if Ayres trusted his actors, but he did not quite trust himself.

This is certainly not the case with Home Song Stories. Rose and her world represent a maturity of insight, where the good mother and the bad mother are not polar opposites but aspects of the one flesh-and-blood woman whose existence, desires and fears make nonsense of the opposition. The film keeps returning to Tom’s point of view: at times fearful, at times elated; his watchful wary eyes are the key image I take away with me. It’s a subtle device that anchors our relationship as viewers to the familial drama, and justifies the film-maker’s construction of his autobiography as partly a fiction. We can believe that the young observant Tom grows up to be a writer and that, even as a young boy, he is aware of the dramatic possibilities of the life he was involved in. The artist’s intentions are being realised through performance, not only because of performance.

There is one more thing I’d like to say about this film, and it’s not really an aside. There’s something joyous about watching an Australian film that slips in and out of English, which represents the multilingual reality of the Australia I live in. I saw the film with four other children of immigrants (Greek, Scottish, Dutch and an Ashkenazi Jew), and we all experienced this joy.
Yes, finally, our world.

Ayres’ sophistication when it comes to imagining contemporary Australia was evident with Walking on Water, where Colosimo and Theodorakis played the lead roles even though their ethnicity was not specified or relevant. (I was reminded recently of just how rare ‘colourblind’ casting is when a friend rang me about a film he is making. He approached casting agencies who supplied him with portfolios of actors, all invariably Anglo-Celtic. When he rang back to ask why this was the case he was snootily told, “You didn’t specify they had to be ethnic.”)

Rose’s story is ultimately devastating so it might seem surprising that I use a word such as ‘joyous’ to indicate something of my reaction to this film. The truth is that Tom’s vision of his mother is communicated to us with much grace and with much tenderness. This does not mitigate the damage done but, as the boy’s watchful eyes constantly remind us, Rose’s almost manic – and ultimately self-destructive – determination not to let the constraints of marriage, of motherhood, of immigration, limit her hunger for the world allows her child to grasp the possibilities of imagination. The joy of living a life is not inseparable from the pain of living life. That’s the legacy Tom’s mother leaves him. It’s a beautiful film.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of five novels – Loaded, The Jesus Man, Dead Europe, The Slap and Barracuda. He co-authored the dialogue, Jump Cuts: An Autobiography, with Sasha Soldatow. He is also a playwright, film critic and essayist. His short story collection, Merciless Gods, is being published in November 2014.

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