HAWAII INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
COURTESY HAWAII INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
Woman of depth
Acting and directing for "The Home Song Stories" put a fresh face on a familiar stereotype
A photograph of Joan Chen as Rose, the alluring nightclub singer in the film "The Home Song Stories," makes it appear that the veteran actress was content to portray yet another in a long line of stereotypical "exotic Asian dolls." You know, just another paying job.
"The Home Song Stories"
Nominee for Halekulani Golden Orchid for Best Feature; 7 p.m. Sunday at Hawaii Theatre (Joan Chen will appear)
Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival
Dates: Thursday through Oct. 28
Venues: Dole Cannery Stadium 18 and the Hawaii Theatre
Tickets: Dole events are $10; $9 military, students and seniors. Hawaii Theatre events are $15; $12 military, students and seniors.
Call: 528-3456 or visit www.hiff.org
Program guides: Available at the festival information table at the Dole multiplex and across the street at the HIFF office
Adding more fuel to the fire, Rose is an unsettling force in her two children's lives. So she's a "bad mother" on top of that.
But credit both Chen's acting talent and writer-director Tony Ayres' sensitivity that they were able to draw sympathy and humanity from such a loaded role. You can see the results as "The Home Song Stories" screens as part of the Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival. The actress will be one of the festival's special guests (bringing her husband and two children with her to Honolulu), and will appear at the film's screening Sunday.
Chen met Ayres through a mutual friend two years before the filming of "The Home Song Stories." It's the story of a seemingly amoral Hong Kong woman and her two children (by different men) who relocate to Australia when she marries a sailor. Rose leaves him a week after the marriage, only to drift from man to man for seven years, her kids knowing a succession of casual-acquaintance "uncles."
When Chen first read Ayres' script, "I just knew I would really enjoy playing this part," she said by phone from her San Francisco home, "but I worried that she had so little redeeming value. Since Tony's story is based on his own life, he brought me old family photos and mementos, and told me of the songs she used to sing, so he made Rose a more compelling character.
"But the question still remained -- why should I believe that she could still love her children, and that continued until the last day of shooting. ... I was trying to help him, and he was very open, as we searched for evidence in her character."
COURTESY FOCUS FEATURES
Actress Joan Chen also has a small role in the erotic espionage thriller, "Lust, Caution," opening Friday for a regular theatrical run.
Two pivotal scenes bring out Rose's love for her children: one is as she tells her distraught daughter her sad history after a failed suicide attempt, and another in which she appears as a comforting vision to her grown writer-son.
"Tony wanted the making of the movie itself to be closure in his relationship with his own mother. ... For my part, I don't know whether the audience will get this, that the last time she tries to commit suicide, she did it as an unselfish act. Rose finally realizes that she's no good for her children, and wants to be out of their lives.
"It makes for a much braver portrayal of maternal ambiguity, where it's usually either evil mothers as villains or maternal love being put on pedestal."
In the film, Rose eventually returns to the Australian sailor's home (he still carries a torch for her). When he leaves for service duty, she finds herself with his "old cow" of a mother, two kids she loves dearly and a impending sense of aging and of losing her sex appeal. Add an affair with a young Chinese immigrant kitchen worker she meets in a neighborhood restaurant, and you have all the makings of a cheesy melodrama.
But "The Home Song Stories" is ultimately an excellent film, so artfully made that it's a multiple nominee in this year's Australian Inside Film Awards, nine out of 10 possible total, including Chen for Best Actress.
Chen also has a small role in Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution," which opens Friday -- a job she says was a breeze compared to "The Home Song Stories."
"It was great to work with an international crew," Chen said. "It reminded me of when I worked on 'The Last Emperor.' There were Taiwanese, Hong Kongese, American and mainland Chinese, everybody adapting to each others' style. It made for an extremely efficient crew. And Ang Lee is a natural-born storyteller. He knows how to get the exact, right rhythm.
"The acting part was not that challenging. Ang wanted me to portray a woman from the Shanghai of that era, a counterbalance to the young woman who's trying to seduce my husband.
"I was basically hired for my presence, but I didn't mind, because I loved being on the set. I learned how to play mahjong, and all the actors would stay on set, playing, while the lighting was readjusted. I had a ball!"