Bad mothers make intriguing characters, and Shanghai nightclub-singer Rose (Joan Chen) is certainly no saint. She drags her two children from Hong Kong, to Melbourne, to Sydney and then back to Melbourne again, shacking up with a sequence of unsuitable ‘uncles’. She’s glamorous, vain and mentally unstable. Yet for her 11 year-old son Tom (Joel Lok) and his older sister Mai (Irene Chen) she’s never quite monstrous enough to hate. It’s hard not to admire her as she strides through ugly 1970s suburbia in her jewel-coloured cheong-sams, cooking up spicy fare and collecting lovers half her age.
Written and directed by Tony Ayres (Walking on Water) and based on his own reminiscences about ‘the year that changed my life’, this film could have been depressing and deeply disturbing. Yet for the most part, the tone is gently humorous. Sumptuous unhurried cinematography by Nigel Bluck could almost be referencing In The Mood for Love, and a score by Antony Partos recreates a retro ‘little China’ atmosphere. Occasionally the film veers close to self-indulgence – particularly in the closing scenes, but a light touch and a collection of superb performances make it a memorable and entertaining variation on the migration story.