Roughly four percent of the Australian population are citizens of Chinese heritage. The abolition of the 'White Australia' policy, which finally ended in 1973, led to an influx of Chinese immigrants and a revitalised Asian Australian culture and Australian cinema is dotted with their stories. Three of the most powerful examples include Floating Life, The Home Song Stories and Mao's Last Dancer.
Writer/director Clara Law’s multilingual drama Floating Life (1996) begins as a warm and innocuous fish out of water story about a Hong Kong family who migrate to Australia shortly before China reclaimed the region in 1997. Mr and Mrs Chan (Edwin Pang and Cecilia Fong Sing Lee) and their two teenage sons move in with their daughter Bing (Annie Yep) into her large, pristine, showroom looking home situated in an unnamed Australian city.
As Mrs Chan puts it: “there is plenty of room for a banquet.” Bing impresses upon her none-the-wiser family a range of observations about life down under. These range from sweeping generalisations (every house has an alarm, a dog and thin walls) to hysterical claims about killer wasps, rampaging pit bull terriers and UV rays so strong they apparently make the population drop dead.
We assume Bing is either misinformed or pulling their legs. But as the story progresses we discover she has assimilated into Australian life to the point of absurdity. She is also panic-stricken, obsessive and en route to a mental breakdown.
When Floating Life – Australia’s first ever submission to the Oscars as a consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category – makes the tonal shift necessary to transfer Bing’s eccentric behaviour from the stuff of punchlines to material for drama and pathos, it presents beautiful vignettes about challenges involved in moving homes and baggage people bring with them.
The most stirring occurs in a spine tingling scene in which Mrs Chan prays to the Chinese gods to return good health to Bing. Weeping inconsolably, her tears falling to the floor, she describes Australia as “this paradise on Earth” then asks “Why can’t we have any joy?” It is an unforgettable moment, sublimely acted by Cecilia Fong Sing Lee.
The Home Song Stories (2007) and Mao’s Last Dancer (2009) also focus on Chinese immigrants coming to terms with life overseas, in Australia and America respectively. Multiculturalism and the idea of a foreigner starting life again abroad is a recurring theme in Australian cinema, from comedies They’re a Weird Mob and Lucky Miles to dramas such as Romulus, My Father and Japanese Story. But such stories are rarely as rich and soulful as these three films, which make wonderful companion pieces.
While Floating Life is a poignant drama about how achieving goals (specifically immigration to Australia) is not necessarily a path to happiness, Mao’s Last Dancer is a triumph-over-adversity story with a warm and fuzzy vibe. From veteran director Bruce Beresford (Don’s Party, Breaker Morant, The Club, Driving Miss Daisy) it is the most broadly appealing of the three. This was reflected in box office receipts: the film collected over from $15 million from cinemas in its local release, making it the 15th most successful Australian film ever at the Australian box office.
The Home Song Stories, on the other hand, is a deeply personal reflection on a broken family. Like Floating Life, it was Australia’s entry for competition as the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. The Home Song Stories scooped awards ceremonies at home including the AFI Awards, where it won in 12 categories including Best Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Actress.
Writer/director Tony Ayres constructed the film from an autobiographical perspective. He looks back on key events in his life -- including his migration to Australia in 1964 and particularly memories of his mother, who died when he was 11-years-old -- and ties them to broader themes about familial dynamics and youthful naivety. Ayre’s portrait of his mother, and particularly the moving performance from Joan Chen that brings her to life, are the film’s strongest assets.
Rose (Chen) is a nightclub singer in Hong Kong who meets an Australian sailor and marries him in search of a better life. “It’s our home now,” she tells her young children Tom (Joel Lock) and May (Irene Chen), nestled on either side of her in bed in their new Melbourne home. Rose assures them that she will make everything good in Australia; that she will protect and nurture them. We discover the opposite is true: she’s a volatile and destructive force whose insecurities manifest themselves in dangerous and ultimately tragic ways.
Unlike Floating Life and Mao’s Last Dancer, The Home Song Stories presents a number of visions of contemporary Chinese-Australian communities that extend outside the family home – in trips to the cinema, games of Mah-jong and various social gatherings. In one scene Rose, in a beautiful navy Chinese dress and matching umbrella, walks past a string of shops. It’s an understated juxtaposition: Rose in tradition garb strolling past a backdrop of commonplace commercialism (“for service with a smile,” reads the sign outside the butcher shop).
Mao’s Last Dancer also offers a perspective the other two films don't have – of Chinese life in China pre-immigration. We discover by flashback the situations that led to genesis of Li Cunxin’s (Chi Cao) dancing career. From a poor rural family he is picked by the Chinese government, his talents tested and put through strenuous training in the esteemed Madame Mao’s Dance Academy. Headhunted by the Houston Ballet, Li is granted a three-month stay in the U.S. He becomes entranced by American culture, falls in love and fights to become a citizen against the wishes of the Chinese government.
By returning to visions of Li’s roots Beresford constructs a series of contrasts, from eastern to western and past to present. These flashbacks wrap a grass roots context around where Li resides and the success he endures. Although he becomes allured by American life, he is warned about western culture in similar (albeit not as alarming) ways as Bing’s hysterical claims in Floating Life.
"There is a lot more to America than meets the eye. Accept no gifts,” Lin is advised by a Chinese authority. It is clear he is supposed to be suspicious of their culture, reminded that life overseas is starkly different to life in the homeland. How exactly the cultures differ is something he discovers for himself, of course, as do the characters in Floating Life and The Home Song Stories.
Mrs Chan, Rose and Li encapsulate perhaps the most meaningful overarching message this trio of films share: that home may be where the heart is, but hearts can be moved or broken anywhere. That message is communicated thoughtfully, in films about characters acclimatising themselves to a culture that is not inherently “theirs.”
What exactly that means – who encapsulates national identity, and to what extent collective and individual standards are measured – are questions that linger around the edges, undefined and open to interpretation.
– Luke Buckmaster