The Home Song Stories is a very personal, very genuine feeling film. Overall I only liked the film a moderate amount, but that sincerity spoke to me. I respected that.
The filmmaker is a Chinese Australian who emigrated from China as a very young boy, with his sister and their mother. This movie is his version of the story of the family’s early years in Australia, and especially of their mother’s mental illness.
The mother is an erratic, flighty, romantic, highly sexed, manic depressive. In the 1960s, apparently working part time as a lounge singer or bar girl of some kind in Hong Kong—it’s not clear she’s ever had any employment other than sort of fringe or temporary things like that; whenever she’s with a husband or boyfriend she takes it as her due that he will financially support her and the kids—she makes an impulsive decision to accompany an Australian sailor back to Australia to marry him.
She leaves him and he takes her back multiple times, but not much progress is made on their relationship since he’s away in the Navy the overwhelming majority of the time. When they’re not broken up, she lives with the kids and his mother (and him when he’s got time off from the Navy) in his little house that she finds intolerably confining and non-Chinese.
Both when they’re broken up and when they’re not, she enters into a series of dalliances with various men—“Uncle This” and “Uncle That” to the kids—all or mostly Chinese, that she makes only minimal effort to keep discreet. The most significant and long-lasting of these is with a younger fellow she meets working in a nearby Chinese restaurant.
He’s at least as close to her teenage daughter’s age as hers, which leads to his attention shifting more and more to the daughter, making the mother jealous, threatened about her age and fading looks, and at times openly hostile toward her daughter.
She bounces back and forth between being exaggeratedly attached to her children, showering them with love, assuring them that whatever happens and whoever else comes and goes from their lives their connection will always be the most important one, versus irresponsibly neglecting them or fighting with them. When she’s conscious of them, her love for them and concern for their well-being seems totally sincere, but the way she’s wired she just isn’t someone who can step back and examine how her life choices are harming them long term.
In other words, her impulses toward them are more often favorable than unfavorable, indeed generally very favorable and loving, but the problem is that her life is governed by her impulses to begin with.
Because she is so (intermittently) clingy with the kids, because she moves them around so much from “Uncle” to “Uncle,” because she’s so emotionally dependent on them, because they have to monitor her so closely for those (all too frequent) occasions when her histrionics culminate in a suicide attempt, the kids really have no life to speak of independent of her.
At one point (I think she’s getting ready for a date), she remarks to her son to get rid of him, “Go play with your friends.” “I don’t have any friends,” he replies matter of factly, and you realize that’s literally true.
Another time he’s walking home with a schoolmate, acting goofy, looking so hopeful that maybe he’s going to make his first friend at his latest new school, and the other boy sees his mother and thinks she looks like a crazy Chinese woman. The boy loses all thoughts of being friends, because now he has the more valuable opportunity to make fun of someone for being different, which he proceeds to do with delight the next day, laughing with classmates about the kooky Chinese woman, and thereby returning the son to his usual role of being ostracized.
I’m really uncomfortable with two kinds of women, or really two kinds of people: those that have a major mean streak, and those that have a major irrational, erratic streak. As far as the latter, maybe I shouldn’t even say “major.” The garden variety amount of irrationality that 90% or more of the female population has is generally enough to push all the wrong buttons on me.
So one of the things that fascinates me is seeing how the people in the mother’s life cope with somebody like her. For the most part, I wouldn’t say she has a mean streak. Yes, she lashes out sometimes in a hurtful manner toward even her own kids, but it’s more the equivalent of a two year old’s tantrum than any kind of genuine malice.
So she’s not mean, but she’s certainly crazy.
I would say most people deal with her reasonably well, reasonably considerately. Her main Chinese boyfriend loses patience with her and fights with her sometimes, and of course there’s the flirting with her teenage daughter thing, but when you get right down to it he’s not a negative character in the movie. He puts up with a lot from her, and he’s at least as responsible as you’d expect someone his age to be. He’s flawed for sure, but on balance he probably adds more positive than negative energy to her life, and the life of the kids.
Most of the lesser characters in the movie also come across OK. The people in the local Chinese community, for instance, step in here and there to help her get some part time work, to watch the kids while she’s in the hospital after her latest suicide attempt, etc. They have the advantage of not having to deal with her on anything like a full time basis, but, again, they help more than not.
For the kids themselves, it’s without a doubt a traumatizing childhood, and at times they react with anger against her and the life she’s stuck them with. But it’s the only life they know, so at least they’ve had a chance to make their adjustments.
They’re just kids, they don’t understand all this, they don’t have all the coping tools, yet to a significant degree they love her, they are aware that she loves them, they appreciate the bond and the warmth that there often is amongst them, and they recognize that she’s sick, that in a sense it’s not her fault she’s the way she is.
The one person who has no patience with her and simply loathes her from start to finish is the Australian mother-in-law. Mostly she’s tight-lipped about it, as it’s her son’s house, her son’s inexplicably attached to this strange woman, and if she comes between them or is too openly hostile it’s very likely she’s the one who’ll lose out. But she absolutely does not want this woman in her son’s life.
A certain amount of that might be anti-foreigner or anti-Chinese sentiment from an older person, but it needn’t be just that. If you don’t see plenty to object to about this woman besides her being Chinese, then you haven’t been paying much attention.
The acrimony is reciprocal, by the way. Though the mother doesn’t so much hate her mother-in-law as find her annoying and worthy of ridicule. She (sometimes) makes a minimal effort to be respectful to her face, but even then in Chinese she’s referring to her for the kids’ benefit as “the old cow.”
The one character whose patience with her approaches the heroic is her Australian Navy husband. Even there of course he has the advantage of being gone most of the time.
But he’s the one who seems most committed to not punishing her for her mental illness. When he keeps giving her second chances, keeps taking her back, it doesn’t feel like weakness. It’s not that she’s got him fooled, or he’s a doormat that she’s exploiting. He’s a good person who’s seemingly accepted that the joy of being with the woman he loves happens to come with certain costs, and that that’s just the cross he has to bear.
In his way he always tries to do right by her and the kids, no matter how hard her behavior is making that. And at the end of the movie, the narrative epilogue (from the now grown son) indicates that he stepped up in an even bigger way for them later.
I wonder how much of the son’s ability to look back on his mother with a certain acceptance and forgiveness is a product of the example provided by his step-father.
The relationships, the plight of the children, the psychology of it all, is handled well enough in The Home Song Stories to have drawn me in to a certain extent, and as I say it feels like a movie done from the heart by a person who’s struggled with his mother and the memory of her his whole life, and that sincerity connected with me. But overall I was probably only into this movie to a degree about equal to the average one I’ve written about so far (which is still pretty good).