Kerry Walker, described on The Home Song Stories' Web site as "one of the 'grand ladies' of Australia's entertainment community", is a highlight of the film, which chronicles the vicissitudes of life in 1960s Melbourne for a migrant from China and her two children, Tom (Joel Lok) and May (Irene Chen, also shown in the pic).
Playing Norma, Bill's (Steven Vidler) mother, Walker is stunningly realistic in the way she encapsulates an entire socioeconomic category despite appearing on-screen for a few brief scenes only.
There is a (possibly unnecessary) framing device: adult Tom is a writer recounting his life's events. The movie opens with a panning shot showing the writer's back as he sits at his desk in front of a computer.
The fact that Rose (Joan Chen) is a torch-song diva is largely irrelevant, so if you are looking for a steamy, romance-drive film, you'll be disappointed. The film is sponsored by, among other organisations, SBS. This tells us a lot.
For example, it explains why Norma is so dislikable. Representing the worst side of the Anglo establishment, Norma is hard to like. In fact, we're meant to dislike her. This is unfortunate and, being the type of person I am, I chose to put Norma in my opening sentence.
But the film does show a clash of civilisations. It's not a tear-jerker. The most apt word I can think of is 'dispassionate' (apart from the Norma factor). Near the end, May demonstrates what she, a child of Chinese heritage brought up in Australia, wants from life. And it's definitely not to marry at the age of 17 a man much older than her, as her mother (we get the flashback) did.
Suicide is the only option for Rose. Nevertheless, due to the vantage we're given via the eyes of children, it is not over-hyped. It serves to illlustrate the realities of life in a foreign culture, as Australia is for Rose. Her kids do not think so.
Rose does a lot to undermine our sympathy, however. She is demanding, uncultured, headstrong, ambitous, capricious, and in all very traditional. Aspiration is a major element, at least in my mind. But because she feels excluded from mainstream society, her options are severely limited. So she relies on the men she partners with, to provide avenues to a better life.
Naturally, they cannot give her what she wants. As a result, she is constantly thwarted. But this destructive thread seems not to damage her children. So Tom the writer, in recounting these events from his early life, is carrying on the traditional Chinese model of family first.