Intercultural Romance and Australian Cinema: Asia and Australia in The Home Song Stories and Mao’s Last Dancer


This essay frames an examination of The Home Song Stories (2007) and Mao’s Last Dancer (2009) through tracing the cultural and symbolic development of intercultural romance in Australian cinema between white and East Asian characters over recent decades. This history of Asian Australian intercultural pairings in Australian film gestures towards a number of changing socio-cultural concerns. These couples are rendered in ways that are intricately linked to systems of discourse and regulation, such as policy, industry, national and, at times, globalised sensibilities of selfhood. The theme of intercultural relations consistently focus and reflect these social configurations. I argue that in Mao’s Last Dancer and The Home Song Stories the Asian diasporic characters within the intercultural couple coincide with a revised narrative of selfhood and diaspora in the contemporary era.


Romantic love and erotic encounters are central to the vitality and appeal of popular cinema. Romance and sex are central to audience expectation and the experience that cinema can provide. They contribute to the status of popular cinema as a global commercial enterprise. This central role played by intimacy and erotic pairings is sustained because it expresses one of the most ubiquitous and familiar narratives of the self. Romantic love (and the attendant narratives of intimacy, desire, eroticism and marriage) is intensely bound to our sense of belonging and perceptions of self and other. Consequently, the couple, as a particular formation of kinship or romantic love, comes to operate as an “agent of cultural orthodoxy”.[1] It is implicated in the processes by which social norms are maintained and the conduct of the self is regulated. This means that shifting cultural orthodoxies are astutely observed in changing cinematic representations of the couple. In this essay I wish to focus on the recent history of inter-racial heterosexual relations in Australian cinema between white and East Asian characters.

From earlier examples such as The Man From Hong Kong (Hong Kong/Australia 1975) through to Echoes of Paradise (Australia 1988) or Japanese Story (Australia 2002) the films included in this grouping do not feature simply inter-racial couples – they tell stories that rely on inter-cultural relations between white (almost always Anglo-Australian) characters and Asian characters who inevitably represent a location, a home, elsewhere. This group of films demonstrates a range of different cross-border relations. I will focus mainly on recent depictions of intercultural romance in Australian cinema which are figured most prominently in The Home Song Stories (Australia/Singapore 2007) and Mao’s Last Dancer (Australia 2009). These films are significant for the way they align intercultural[2] romance with a revised narrative of selfhood and diaspora, one that is constituted through the figure of the mobile, entrepreneurial individual. As a path to understanding the relevance of these two examples I will begin by briefly tracing the cultural and symbolic development of these intercultural heterosexual relations in Australian cinema over the last decades.

My aim is not simply to identify how these couples are deployed as narrative devices, but to investigate the kind of historical public sphere these themes speak to and are spoken by. Miriam Hansen, drawing on Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, offers an avenue through which to theorise this notion of cinema and the public. Moving away from Habermasian notions of the public sphere, Hansen formulates a more inclusive notion of “the public” which offers a valuable way of understanding cinematic representation and reception. She accounts for both the dominant industrial-commercial public sphere as well as more quotidian dimensions that feed into subjective experience:

[ … ] cinema functions both as a public sphere of its own – defined by specific relations of representation and reception – and as part of a larger social horizon – defined by other media and by the overlapping local, national and global, face-to-face and deterritorialised structures of public life. (p. 145)

The combination of these different dimensions of public life are brought together by Hansen, methodologically, in order to understand what social conditions might facilitate particular modes of experience or subjectivity – modes that “restrict and enable agency, interpretation and self-organisation” (p. 145). The conditions I am mainly concerned with here are 1) industrial factors that effect representation; 2) discourses proliferating in the dominant national public sphere concerning the relations between Asia and Australia; 3) policy concerning migration as a form of governmentality that regulates citizens and impacts on face-to-face interaction; and 4) the narrative representation of romance, specifically intercultural romantic pairings.

Central to this approach is the notion that transnationalism, to varying degrees, underpins national cinema formations. When I refer to the “transnationalism” of Australian cinema I am invoking a broadly conceived conceptualization of this term, one that is not limited to funding sources alone. Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar capture this conceptualization in their account of Chinese cinemas when they describe an arena “[…]connecting differences, so that a variety of regional, national, and local specificities impact upon each other in various types of relationships ranging from synergy to contest” (p. 5). I argue that the trope of intercultural romance in these films gestures towards a number of changing socio-cultural concerns. It is present in Australian cinema in ways that are intricately linked to systems of discourse and regulation, such as policy, industry, national and, at times, globalised sensibilities of selfhood. The themes of intercultural romance consistently focus and reflect these social configurations.

Intercultural Liaisons in Australian Cinema

Australian cinema did not show a significant interest in romantic themes that coupled Asian and white characters until well into the 1980s – a relative latecomer when compared with Hollywood which has, as Gina Marchetti establishes, been interested in all types of taboo sexuality, especially miscegenation, since the early cinema period. This omission is particularly notable in the 1970s and 80s, the period of the Australian film revival which brought a rapid intensification of production. This scant attention to Asian/Anglo intercultural romance in the first decades of the film revival should be understood in relation to a lack of visibility more broadly – there are approximately a dozen fiction films featuring Asian or Asian Australian characters in major or minor roles in Australian cinema between 1970 and 1990.[3] At the same time, this absence is not mirrored in the body politic which saw a sharp increase in migration from select Asian countries from the dissolution of the White Australia policy, from the early 1970s onwards.

Following this, if individuals of Asian background were increasingly present in Australian society but absent from the prevailing concerns of the film revival (beyond a small number of exceptions), this is because they did not figure into a national film industry and public sphere dealing with particular myths of nation and history. Nor were they accounted for in the growing cinematic representation of established European derived multiculturalism or the commercially inspired B-cinema movement of the 1970s and 80s. Yet, at the level of policy and migration, there was an increasing openness to Asia and Asian migration. While the presence of higher numbers of Chinese Australians in the early part of the twentieth century was accompanied by a limited cinematic visibility, with characters predictably featured in opium and gambling dens or the goldfields[4] , Asian characters are strikingly absent from the filmic representation of Australian culture in the most prolific period of production, the 1970s and early 1980s.[5]

For the most part it is after the late 1980s that themes of Asian intercultural romance appear in Australian cinema. The handful of films that fall into this category have already received a significant amount of critical attention.[6] Discussions have not been focused necessarily on themes of romance or sexual relations, but rather on the films’ relevance to other related cultural questions, notably tensions around Australia’s relationship to East Asia and the representation of Asian diasporas. Unsurprisingly, intercultural liaisons are frequently key to the narrative exploration of these questions. Between 1988 and 2002 films featuring themes of intercultural romance fall into two distinct phases. The first demonstrates an interest in Southeast Asia and presents Anglo Australian protagonists traveling into exoticised Asian landscapes. The second focuses on the Australian outback and places the figure of the Japanese sojourner centrally in the plot.

The first phase is exemplified by Turtle Beach (Australia 1992), set in Malaysia, Echoes of Paradise (Australia 1988) or the feature-length documentary, The Good Woman of Bangkok (Australia/UK 1991), both set in Thailand. Displacing the experience of multiculturalism in Australian society onto locations in the region, these three films offer viewers images of Anglo-Australian travelers drawn into relationships with other cultures and cultural others. For Chua Siew Keng the Australian-centric impetus of Turtle Beach and Echoes of Paradise is evidenced by the privileging of an Australian subjectivity and the orientalist depiction of Asian characters. Asian Australian subjectivities or “Asian subjectivities as constituent of Australian identities are screened out” (p. 28). During the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments (1983-1996) changes in immigration policy that were already underway were furthered and reinforced by popular discourses that moved away from the overt racial exclusion of earlier decades and emphasized an awareness of diversity. Multiculturalism, integration with Asia, and greater exposure to global markets were pursued in policy and underscored in public discourse. The narrative of traveling into another culture and engaging in a cross-cultural affair, as depicted most thoroughly in Philip Noyce’s Echoes of Paradise, comes to symbolise at this time a socially condoned excursion into the unknown in the interests of enhancing the self. These are tourist narratives that speak to changing fantasies of the other by presenting a spectacle that encompasses tropical Asia and an eroticized Asian other. In these films, the representation of Asian diasporic communities within the nation’s borders is transferred onto the more easily consumed fantasy of the sexualized investigation of Southeast Asia.[7]

Shifting the focus from Asia to the Australian outback, another highly visible group of films follow in the late 1990s. Heaven’s Burning (Australia 1997), The Goddess of 1967 (Australia 2000) and Japanese Story (2002) each takes the viewer into the Australian outback, offering differing visions of the road movie. Each also features a Japanese character, recently arrived in Australia and with a limited stay ahead of them. In her discussion of Japanese Story Felicity Collins offers a broader context for this trilogy of films that she refers to as an “inward-looking national agenda of the 1990s”.[8] The era that Collins refers to was characterized by domestic contestations over the advancement of Aboriginal land rights and anxieties over the nation’s borders triggered by the perceived threat posed by refugees and the popularity of anti-Asia political sentiment. This era follows on from the outward focus described above and bridges the demise of the Labor government and the beginning of a decade of conservative rule with John Howard as prime minister.

In Japanese Story the Japanese character is a businessman while The Goddess of 1967 and Heaven’s Burning offer variations on the stereotype of the Japanese tourist. In each case these characters are constructed in ways that compliment the journey of self-discovery undertaken by the Anglo-Australian character. They function two-dimensionally and in ways that invoke Japan’s highly industrialized, late capitalist corporate nationhood. Thus, they suggest a questioning of Australia’s place in a global economy – the Japanese characters are depicted in ways that reference an uncertainty within the nation’s borders around the impact of global capitalism as Australian society emerges from the policies of deregulation of the 1980s.[9] If, as Khoo observes, Heaven’s Burning “offers an extremely doubtful picture of the future of Asians in Australia” (p. 54), in almost all the films mentioned the transitory nature of the relationships (and finality in the case of Japanese Story and Heaven’s Burning with the death of the Japanese love interest) mark a lack of continuity in diaspora and a pessimistic view of intercultural relations in the region.

While there are a few exceptions within these two phases that defy tidy categorization, the prominent examples in each period are remarkably consistent. In the instances where intercultural liaisons are represented, they are figured in a way that excludes the Asian character from an Australian identity and projects them into the realm of symbolism and otherness. Within Hansen’s cinematic public sphere they come to objectify social antagonisms and shifts in the racialised conceptualisation of the nation state. If this sphere is part of a larger social horizon, it is noteworthy that in these examples romance functions as an agent of cultural orthodoxy in ways that morph away from the actual social contours of cultural difference and what many experience as the quotidian reality of multiculturalism and intercultural interaction in Australia. An awareness of social change and antagonism is channeled into an emotive fantasy of sexual adventure. None of the films over this time, with the exception of Solrun Hoaas’ film, Aya (Australia 1990) or Clara Law’s Floating Life (Australia 1996), attempt to grapple with issues of family, marriage or generations in the Asian diaspora. None are explicitly concerned with Asian or Asian Australian subjectivity. The sociality and experience of domestic intercultural relationships are displaced by fantasies of racialised erotic encounters. These are encounters that are placeholders for national encounters. In the next section I wish to explore how two recent examples have begun to present a more individuated Asian subjectivity within the intercultural couple.

The Home Song Stories and Mao’s Last Dancer

There is an important shift in the depiction of intercultural romance in Australian cinema after 2003. The handful of films that address this theme break with the previous emphasis on momentary erotic encounters. They also move away from assimilating sexual encounters to national interactions and offer, discursively and industrially, a revised transnationalism. Films such as The Finished People (Australia 2003), Little Fish (Australia 2005), The Jammed (Australia 2007), The Home Song Stories and Mao’s Last Dancer foreground a more intricately rendered Asian subject, a mobile Asian diasporic self. In the latter two, this is realized in tandem with transnational production systems. Indeed, The Home Song Stories and Mao’s Last Dancer share a number of commonalities – both are biographies, both are set in past decades and both are concerned with what Audrey Yue has referred to as the “universal theme of the Chinese diaspora” (p. 229).

The Home Song Stories tells the story of Tom, a Melbourne writer, who came with his sister, May, and mother, Rose, to Australia in 1964. The plot traces events in Tom’s childhood as the family of three are buffeted by Rose’s search for love and her inability to make a stable home. The film is primarily an exploration of the relationship between a mother and her children, but this relationship is inseparable from the decisions Rose makes about the men in her life, primarily Bill, the Australian naval officer that she marries in Hong Kong and who enables her movement to Melbourne and the acquisition of Australian citizenship. While the adult Tom narrates, in voiceover, the opening and closing scenes of the film, due to the publicity surrounding the film much of the audience would be aware that the events depicted are based on the experiences of Tony Ayres, the writer and director of The Home Song Stories.

In comparison, Mao’s Last Dancer is more concerned with the protagonist’s movement between mainland China and the USA. Spanning several decades, the film represents Li Cunxin’s journey from his rural Chinese peasant childhood to his defection and success as a principal dancer in the Houston Ballet. The story was adapted for the screen from Li’s best-selling autobiography by screenwriter Jan Sardi. The book extends beyond the period portrayed in the film and details how Li fell in love with an Australian ballerina, Mary McKendry and migrated to Australia in 1995 where he has lived since. At the time of writing the book he worked as a stockbroker in Sydney. Significantly, the primary intercultural love story that the film explores does not involve McKendry, although she does feature in the film, but rather a young aspiring dancer Li met when he arrived in Houston, Elizabeth Mackey (Liz). McKendry appears throughout the film, as dancer in the Houston Ballet and in the final scene, as Li’s wife, accompanying him when he is finally able to return to his village in China. The closing credits note that the couple later settle in Australia to raise a family. This life does not feature in Mao’s Last Dancer but McKendry’s character cements an Australian point of reference in the film, hinting at their life to come. Moreover, Mike Walsh observes that Li’s connection to Australia haunts the film, it “implies a third place, a place of reflection and narration” (p. 162). Aside from the presence of McKendry, this is largely due to the way the notoriety of Li’s autobiography and the Australian significance for the film have circulated alongside Mao’s Last Dancer in the Australian public sphere.

The representation of the interracial couple lends itself to transnational connections and themes. Throughout the 1990s this is a weak transnationalism in Australian cinema, figured through either the presence of a Japanese character or travel to a Southeast Asian nation in the narrative. In both cases the transnationalism is simultaneously anchored in sexualised relations and is an avenue through which to explore the centered white Australian subject. In films such as Echoes of Paradise and The Man From Hong Kong this extends to transnational funding and/or the production and reception of the film. The Home Song Stories and Mao’s Last Dancer are more decisively and subjectively transnational in the sense that they speak to a notion of self that is scripted from an Asian diasporic point of view. Both of these films have at their heart the difficulties of migration and experiences of life in diaspora, particularly for Chinese exiles, Rose and Cunxin. A key distinction here can be seen in the way the aspirational citizen replaces the tourist as the central object of the narrative. Further, intercultural heterosexual liaisons are utilized differently – they play a role in securing a permanent place for these transnational individuals in the locations in which they land.

The Home Song Stories immediately announces itself as a story about place, family and the tension between permanency and transiency. The film begins with a movement from the Hong Kong nightclub Rose works in to the suburban streets of 1960s Melbourne and the opening scenes establish Tom as the narrator. The images in the nightclub show Rose singing, framing Bill with Tom and May as small children peeking out through the back of the nightclub, behind Bill, all turned to watch Rose. From this point the matrix of the family is instituted as key to the events to follow. Rose is the object of the gaze here and the site of investigation throughout the film. While in cinema this usually defaults to a sexualized investigation, here it is rendered, in the first instance, as a meditation on a mother/child relationship – a relationship seen through the eyes of a young boy, but made sense of from the perspective of the adult narrator. The intercultural love relationship between Bill and Rose is one of two relationships that Rose enters into in the film (the second is with “Uncle Joe,” a younger, illegal migrant from Hong Kong). The opening scenes condense time and depict how a week after marrying Bill in Melbourne Rose leaves him and spends the next seven years “drifting”, only to return to Bill and the house in Melbourne where he now lives with his mother. Once this past is established, the story begins in earnest.

This beginning suggests what becomes strikingly clear by the end of the film – Rose craves acceptance and love but is unable to make plans or settle in one place with one person. Yet she is an entrepreneur, however troubled, in the sense that she has made choices and taken up the opportunities presented to her. Although we see a small diasporic Chinese community in the film, principally centered on a suburban Chinese restaurant, Rose has migrated to Australia just prior to the growth in migration from East Asia to Australia. The trip made at the outset of the film by the small single-parent family would have been unusual and risky.

The similarities between Aya and The Home Song Stories are significant – both emphasize the dissonance of intercultural (and the visibility of inter-racial) relationships within the mise-en-scène of the Australian suburban home in the years before state-sponsored multiculturalism. Both women grapple with the weight of personal and cultural expectation and eventually cannot keep, for different reasons, their relationships intact. Kathryn Perry observes that unlike conventional romance, “the interracial relationship is rarely publicly sanctioned, yet it will borrow from romance the narrative of how elusive desire becomes a happy union” (p. 173). Yet the happy union never eventuates for Rose or Aya. These relationships may be socially unsanctioned, but more emphasis is placed on the individual’s struggle with intimacy and belonging in diaspora than the transgression of social mores.

When compared with the earlier examples, in The Home Song Stories there is a shift in the way the protagonist is constructed. She is narrativised through semi-permanent relationships rather than temporary intimate encounters alone. Rose is an ethnicised self with transnational experiences and roots in more than one place, rather than a national self as can be seen in previous films such as Japanese Story. In both Mao’s Last Dancer and The Home Song Stories the emphasis is on interpersonal relationships rather than the spectacle of character interactions set against exotic or exceptional backdrops. Furthermore, the relationship between Bill and Rose is not the erotic and novel interracial spectacle seen in the previous films. While they are certainly a couple in the film, and a married couple at that, the only evident romance between the two is hinted at in the opening scenes in the Hong Kong bar. Once in Australia any romantic intimacy is replaced by awkwardness and dissonance within the confines of suburban domestic space. In The Home Song Stories the intercultural couple highlights Rose’s transnational subjectivity not through a conventional love story, but through a struggle over domestic space.

When Rose and the children return to Bill and his Melbourne home the scenes that follow are central to the representation of Rose’s Asian Australian selfhood. In these scenes the intercultural is infused with the myriad of interpersonal motivations. After the seven years apart Bill is still enamored with Rose. However, Rose’s subdued demeanor suggests that the family of three are returning due to financial hardship rather than love. As the children settle into the small home, a scene between Bill and Rose conveys the imbalance in their relationship and its anchoring in family necessity. Against the 1950s décor of the bedroom Rose sits with a despondent expression on her face as Bill says: “I reckon we can work things out.” After a silence he follows with “you look good”. Rose stands to face him and says “You good man. You take care of us.” She kisses him briefly and he returns this with a passionate embrace. With only Rose’s face turned to the camera, she is the central point of identification for the spectator and her reluctance is clear.

This interaction has been viewed by Tom. In fact, the scene in the bedroom first comes into view upside down and second hand through a shaving mirror that Tom holds as he walks through the house. The kiss is interrupted as a drop of blood falls onto the mirror and Tom has a spontaneous bloody nose. Rose rushes away to look after him, visibly relieved to be distracted by the demands of family. This use of the mirror to reflect sexual relations occurs again in a scene soon after that takes place in the couple’s bedroom as they engage in awkward lovemaking. While Bill is turned away from the camera, Rose’s face is visible twice in the mise-en-scène as it is reflected in the window next to the bed. Her discomfort is doubly emphasized in this instance. Moreover, the mirrors function as a distancing device, highlighting Rose’s lack of desire and, through placing the couple at one remove from the spectator, replacing intimacy with self-consciousness and dissonance.[10]

Dissonance is reflected again in Rose’s experience of domestic space. It is not only through sex, but also through the re-ordering of the home along intercultural lines that the marriage bond is made visible. In this sense the struggle over sovereignty of the iconoclastic Australian home takes place between Rose and her mother in law. It is in this domain that Rose asserts her agency within the relationship and this is manifest through markers of Chinese femininity. One of her first acts in the new house is to hang the colorful bead curtain from Hong Kong that she pulls out of the chest of belongings that accompanies her everywhere, nailing it decisively to the doorjamb. It is inferred later that Bill’s mother has unceremoniously pulled it down. Another shot shows her hanging the cheongsams she constantly wears on the Hills Hoist in the backyard. Rose’s movement through domestic space draws attention to her determination not to bow to pressure to minimise the impact of her cultural presence there. Yet, framed within the rooms of a Melbourne home in the early 1970s, these objects and the figure of Rose herself, express a visible disjuncture. This experience of the relationship and its place in the home is rendered through the eyes of Rose, and to a lesser extent, Tom. Rather then the fantasy of momentary encounters, The Home Song Stories poses a family melodrama presented through the prism of Rose’s migrant experience of displacement and emotional and financial instability.

Both The Home Song Stories and Mao’s Last Dancer are biographical, employing the tactics of melodrama and referencing figurations of the individual, and the citizen-subject in particular. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s work on ethics and biopolitics, Aiwha Ong theorises American citizenship, ethnicity and practices of regulation. She argues that “in our age of globalization, the figure of entrepreneurial prowess is increasingly multiracial, multicultural and transnational” (p. 9). The aspects of citizenship that Ong refers to enable and restrict “choice-making” subjects. They include the “everyday practices of subjects who are acted upon and who act on their own behalf in pursuing values and assets that may contradict the ones assigned to them by prevailing norms” (p. 6). Most crucially, these subjects are “entrepreneurs of the self”.

Gaining citizenship through marriage would have been one of the few ways Rose could legitimately migrate to Australia in 1964.[11]  Immigration policy is one technology of citizenship, of control and enablement, by which individuals shape their lives. Rose took an entrepreneurial decision when she decided to bring her children to a new life in a new country. Rose may be an entrepreneur but she is also in a precarious position. As a female migrant in the 1960s there are limited options available to her. Even though she is a citizen, she must rely on her own ingenuity, rather than a secure profession or trade. While she was a singer in Hong Kong, Rose relies on the men in her life or, later in the film, work as a kitchen hand, to support herself and her children. Much of her experience of migration is shaped by the discourses of femininity in regard to both heterosexual relations and labour.

While the film presents an earlier phase of migration and “entrepreneurial prowess” to use Ong’s term, it is understood from the perspective of the present day and the increasing transnational mobility of individuals. This notion of selfhood is clear not only in the narrative, but also extra-textually, in the film’s production and signifiers of authorship. Firstly, the function of authorship produced by the film encompasses Tom (the boy and the adult writer) and Ayres the filmmaker. All share the status of a diasporic subject engaged in activities of self-narration and self-inscription. These films emphasize the diasporic Asian Australian self as author. If the intercultural romance between Bill and Rose personifies the cross-border locations and references of the plot, Tom and Ayres anchor these references in the context of multicultural Australia and the second generation in diaspora.

The Home Song Stories also reflects a contemporary era of transnational production, echoing and updating the production systems of films such as The Man from Hong Kong. The two principle sources of funding were Australia’s Film Finance Corporation and Singapore’s MediaCorp Raintree Pictures. As Yue details, the film was released to coincide with the signing of the Singapore–Australia Co-production Film Treaty. Yue notes that, “although the film is not a direct product of bilateral film policy, it is hailed as a model for formalizing the existing strong partnerships between Australian and Singaporean production companies that have developed in recent years” (p. 231). Further, the figure of Ayres, an entrepreneurial professional, echoes the individual mobility depicted in the film. Ayres has moved beyond the film funding regimes of the nation-state in search of greater opportunities in the region. As Yue identifies, here “national film policies and industries are bypassed for opportunities to make films that have bigger production values and are more transnationally oriented. For the Macau-born Ayres, this move also symbolically represents reverse migration” (p. 232). Yet, if the film formalizes a commercial relationship, it does so in a way that, from an Australian perspective, enhances the stature and reach of the national cinema through presenting an Australian-based story to an Asian market successfully targeted by the Singapore industry.

The financial partnership is to some extent enabled by the scripting of migration and intercultural interpersonal relationships on-screen which, in turn, are easily assimilated to the ethos of the commercial model. This is a model that recognizes the popular appeal of, and audience identification with, romantic themes. The Home Song Stories suits the agenda of commerce (or “the commerce of romance”) and the national industry, while also marking a shift in how subjectivity and transnationalism is configured through individual authorship and personal (romantic) relationships. Thus, The Home Song Stories can be understood as a locus for a number of related concerns. Intercultural romance is incorporated into and furthers the interests of narratives of entrepreneurial individualism, the commerce of romance, cross-border production and/or finance and Asian migration – each of which are realized in relation to Asian Australian subjectivity. Mao’s Last Dancer is equally implicated in these relations through the specificities of production and narrative.

Mao’s Last Dancer is a more conventional “biopic” than The Home Song Stories. Filmed on location in Sydney, the United States and China, it follows the life of Li Cunxin from his early childhood in rural China to his defection to America where he took up the principal dancer role with the Houston Ballet. The intercultural romantic partnership in Mao’s Last Dancer serves two key functions. It assists in the actualization of the choices made by Li, the entrepreneurial agent, primarily his choice to stay in the USA, while also affirming the heteronormative economy of popular cinema.

The story is characterized by moments of high drama, with obvious cues to indicate to the audience the emotional highs and lows in the plot. Much of this emotional address utilizes the spectacle of the dance, with the corporeality of the dancers’ bodies fundamental to the affective impetus of the film. Inevitably, the male body, Li’s body, is foremost in the mise-en-scène. From the outset this imagery must contend with both the pervasive cultural narratives that feminize figurations of Asian masculinity and those that cast the dancing male body, the male body on display, as outside the norms of heterosexuality. This twenty-six million dollar production, lavish by Australian standards, is designed to maximize its popular audience appeal. Part of this appeal is in its depiction of an uncomplicated migrant story with clear markers of triumph and personal suffering. The success of this appeal relies upon the suppression of signifiers of sexual ambiguity. One reviewer observes: “everything has been done to present Li’s world of ballet as tough, athletic and definitely heterosexual” (Hatherley). Li’s heterosexual masculinity is affirmed by the emphasis on the athleticism and physically demanding nature of elite ballet training. For example, scenes of Li at dance school in Beijing include montage sequences of him exercising with weights attached to his legs. This physicality supplements the more obvious heteroperformative plotline of his romance with Liz, and the inferred relationship with Mary at the end of the film. Both of these reaffirm Li’s normative sexuality while also contributing to a narrative arc that is structured through the terms of love, loss and rising above adversity.

The relationship with Liz that gradually unfolds once Li arrives in Houston offsets this physicality with a focus on Li’s changing emotional world. This change weaves together the beginning of a new relationship with Li’s gradual demystifying of communist doctrine as he quickly comes to embrace American (capitalist) ideologies and freedoms (which are also normalized and unquestioned in the film). The romance between Liz and Li emphasizes their difference. This difference serves to both show Li’s acclimatization to American culture and his growing affection for Liz. On a date at a Chinese restaurant she is first introduced to Chinese cuisine while he performs his confusion over spoken English. Yet the film leaves ambiguous the question of whether he married Liz for love or to stay in America. There is a pivotal moment after an argument in their modest Houston apartment when Liz asks this exact question: “When we got married was it because you loved me or because you wanted to stay?” Li replies in English and then in Mandarin that he loves her. However there is some uneasiness in Li’s response that leaves the scene ambiguous. Following this, Liz leaves to pursue her ballet career in San Francisco.

As a male migrant with a professional career, the implications of the break-up for Li are much different to those experienced by Rose as her relationships end. Li has much more freedom and upward mobility. Reflecting his gendered experience of migration, Li is afforded much more autonomy and privilege in the film. Once he has gained citizenship, his intercultural relationships are not key to his survival in the US. The importance of individual enterprise, cultivation of the self and mobility is again central to this film and its production. As with The Home Song Stories, Li is a character in the film while his image circulates alongside the film in ways that position him as an author, thus highlighting the authenticity of the biographical narrative. Like Ayres and Rose before him, Li exemplifies the entrepreneur. He takes great risks to improve his life and invest in his own human capital. His decision differs to the one made by Rose. Although he has no children to consider, Li must renounce his homeland and his family there. Australian citizenship and immigration policy is replaced by American systems of regulation, but regardless, marriage is the avenue to citizenship open to Li to stay in the country and take up a new life. The intercultural romantic partnership in Mao’s Last Dancer functions to both accentuate and further the project of individualism while also maintaining the dominant values of popular cinema, the heteronormative commerce of romance.

There is another consequence of this emphasis on Asian male subjectivity and heterosexuality. In casting Chi Cao, a star in the Birmingham Royal Ballet, in the role of the adult Li, Mao’s Last Dancer presents a unique image of desirable Asian masculinity. Earlier visions of Asian male sexuality within interracial couplings have produced either awkward and implausible sex scenes (The Man from Hong Kong or The Demonstrator) or a displaced or ambiguous masculinity (Echoes of ParadiseJapanese Story or The Goddess of 1967). In contrast, the biographical focus on Li within the structure of the melodrama offers a fully realized romantic lead which is enhanced by Cao’s tall, athletic body and handsome, chiseled features. Li is paired with a number of white women throughout the film, two are explicit love relationships and many more couplings are evident in dance duets, which function as metaphors for romantic encounters. While the film never offers a fully rendered sex scene, these constant couplings assert Li as a vision of sexualized desirability, albeit somewhat sanitized. Despite his confusion with American culture and clumsy use of English, Li’s renown as a dancer and the constant emphasis on his physicality (both his centrality to the image and his constant proximity to female dancers as he lifts and leads them) present Li as a new figure in Australian cinema – a physically powerful, successful, attractive Asian male character whose appeal is largely aimed at a white female audience.

The notion of the successful migrant, an individual re-working the self to achieve success in a new environment, can also be extended to Bruce Beresford, the director of Mao’s Last Dancer. As Walsh observes, Beresford is “startlingly well-qualified to tell Li Cunxin’s story” (p. 12). Australian born Beresford had success in the Australian film revival with classics such as Don’s Party (1976), The Getting of Wisdom (1978) and Breaker Morant (1980). He moved to Hollywood to direct Tender Mercies, released in 1983 (achieving a Best Director Oscar nomination), roughly the same time Li arrives in America. Beresford goes on to direct Driving Miss Daisy(1989) which won four Academy awards including Best Picture. Li and Beresford are outsiders who are drawn to the centre of American culture. However, if they take on the cultural establishment, they do so on the aesthetic terms set down by that establishment, whether it is the rigor of classical ballet (Swan Lake rather than revolutionary ballet) or Hollywood convention (Driving Miss Daisy, a film exploring race relations for a mainstream audience). Both use their difference to inflect, but not undermine, dominant cultural values. Foucault discusses governmentality specifically in relation to migration when he describes it as “an investment; the migrant is an investor. He is an entrepreneur of himself who incurs expenses by investing to obtain some kind of improvement” (p. 230). This investment is evident as a calculated negotiation of the creative economy that in turn provides successful careers for both for Li and Beresford that are played out across a global landscape that includes the USA and Australia.

Mao’s Last Dancer was the nation’s highest grossing film at the box office in 2009 but was slow to pick up an American distributor. At the time of writing it had achieved a limited release in the US with Samuel Goldwyn Films in August 2010. Unlike The Home Song Stories, this very international story is yet to find a strong market outside Australia. It was not party to an international co-production treaty but was financed, primarily, by Australia’s Film Finance Corporation and Bell Potter Securities, the private company Li works for in his new career as a stockbroker in Australia. Li raised this money himself to kick-start the film’s production. While a number of the cast and the key production personnel were Chinese[12] , the film was not an official co-production. However, the storyline and the production itself are clearly transnational in scope.[13]

If understood against the backdrop of contemporaneous social and discursive conditions, both The Home Song Stories and Mao’s Last Dancer accede to the reorientation in public debate occurring over the last decade and affirm a new international focus. The post-September 11 era has seen a move away from the insularity of the 1990s Collins describes towards a globally shared anxiety around the war on terror. This is a paranoia focused on the threatening other who might inflict harm both from outside and within national borders. The anxiety this produces is shared within a global community of affluent nations. Both films suggest this revised international consciousness but they do so in ways that neutralize the ethos of “difference as threat” with the more acceptable form of otherness: the aspirational migrant.

This figure of the migrant as aspirational citizen (and aspiring citizen-to-be) coincides with the increasing influence of the ideologies and policies of neo-liberalism, the very mechanisms that construct and reflect the entrepreneurial individual. While neo-liberal notions of individualism, market-driven choice and privatization have been on the rise for some time, they have been accelerating in the Australian public sphere over the past decade, particularly in relation to migration. In addition, the first decade of the new millennium has seen a retreat from the rhetoric of multiculturalism (and a notion of unity-in-diversity) in governmental policy and a renewed emphasis on citizenship and national cohesion based on shared values.

Jon Stratton articulates the ongoing reconstruction of Australia as a neo-liberal state from the late 90s (the time of the Howard government) with regard to citizenship and migration. He focuses on migration policy and the treatment of asylum seekers. Global migration has steadily increased over the last four decades and, for Stratton, “in global countries of the North, which, however, includes Australia, the border has become the neoliberal filter where decisions that have been made about the economic worth of these migrants to the nation-state are instituted” (p. 685).[14] Such an economy facilitates the ideology of the individual as an agent of enterprise who is in turn regulated by the current means of acquiring citizenship. While in the films the characters of Rose and Li are marked by their aspiration, their value as labour is subordinated to their ability to marry “well”. Thus they bypass the question of economic worth outlined by Stratton, if not the ideology of neo-liberal entrepreneurialism.

Nevertheless, the mobility and value of labour is relevant to the cross-border production context of the films more broadly. I am referring to the increasing numbers of creative workers, such as Beresford, Ayres, Li and the many production personnel and extras who are integral to both films. Notable in this regard is Chinese actress and director Joan Chen who appears in both films, in a minor role as Li’s mother in Mao’s Last Dancer and as Rose in The Home Song Stories. Chen’s stardom extends across national borders as she has worked in Hollywood as well as the Chinese and Australian film industry. The longstanding international careers of Beresford, Li and Chen reference past decades of migrant mobility. Yet, when viewed in relation to the current two films and their place in a national cinematic public sphere that privileges the (international) labour worth of individuals, this dimension of the productions further aligns the films, industrially and thematically, with the global circuits of production, consumption and migration.


In the earlier phases of Australian cinema I have described, Asian subjectivity is posed in ways that are subservient to a narrative of Anglo-self discovery (the other as a symbol of Asia or a site of escape) and the Asian other is presented as a symbol for nationhood and national anxieties about the region or the ontology of multiculturalism. The more recent examples of The Home Song Stories and Mao’s Last Dancer move to a new cultural orthodoxy which focuses less on the Asian subject as other, a projection of the fears and desires of nationhood, and more on optimization of labour value and/or individual capital. In one sense, entrepreneurial individualism more readily leads to representations scripted from an Asian Australian point of view. Within this orthodoxy, intercultural relationships are sanctioned because they are viable investments according to the terms of choice and risk. In these films this economy intersects with the cinematic commerce of romance. As I noted at the outset, romance can secure the commercial popularity of cinema broadly. This is realized more specifically in these two films as cross-border commerce. The intercultural interpersonal relationships on-screen assist either cross-border funding partnerships or the targeting of multiple international audiences/markets or both.

Yet these films are also conceived as biographical narratives, necessarily emphasising the agency of the self within unpredictable environments. Over the last three decades there has been a shift of considerable proportions in the representation of Asian Australians in Australian cinema. This ranges from a dearth of representation in the 1970s to the present day in which The Home Song Stories and Mao’s Last Dancer not only bring the Asian diaspora to the screen, but also become two of the industry’s most prominent films in recent years. In addition to referencing prevailing sensibilities of selfhood and migration, these films also make unique contributions to an Australian cinematic imagination. Mao’s Last Dancer asserts a new figuration of sexualized Asian masculinity through the aestheticisation of the body in dance and the film’s many romantic pairings. In The Home Song Stories the intercultural couple engenders a dissonance and a reordering of domestic space in the historical Australian home. The specific manifestations of the intercultural couple in each case envisages Asian diasporic subjectivity in ways that institute revised images of cultural difference.


Berry, Chris and Mary Farquhar. China on Screen: Cinema and Nation. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
Bodey, Michael. “Memoir Tiptoes Between Cultures.” The Australian. 30 Sept 2009. n. pag. Web. 10 February 2010.
Collins, Felicity. “Japanese Story: A Shift of Heart.” Senses of Cinema 29 (2003) n. pag. Web. 5 December 2009.
— and Therese Davis. Australian Cinema After Mabo. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Coyle, Rebecca. “’Now You Blokes Own the Place’: Representations of Japanese Culture in Recent Australian Cinema.” Diasporas of Australian Cinema. Ed. Catherine Simpson, Renata Murawska and Anthony Lambert. Bristol: Intellect, 2009.
Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitcs: Lectures at the College de France, 1978-1979. Ed. Michel Senellart. Trans. Graham Burchell. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Hansen, Miriam. “Early Cinema, Late Cinema: Transformations of the Public Sphere.” Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film. Ed. Linda Williams. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995. Pp. 134-154.
Hatherley, Frank. “Mao’s Last Dancer.” Screen Daily. 14 Sept 2009. n. pag. Web 10 Feb 2010.
Khoo, Olivia. “Telling Stories: The Sacrificial Asian in Australian Cinema.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 71:1-2 (2006): pp. 45-63.
Marchetti, Gina. Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Markus, Andrew. Australian Race Relations, 1788-1993. St. Leonards, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 1994.
Morris, Meaghan. “The Man From Hong Kong in Sydney, 1975.” Imagining Australia: Literature and Culture in the New World. Eds. Judith Ryan and Chris Wallace-Crabbe. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Ong, Aiwha. Buddha is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, the New America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Pearce, Lynne and Gina Wisker. “Rescripting Romance: An Introduction.” Fatal Attractions: Rescripting Romance in Contemporary Literature and Film. Eds. Lynne Pearce and Gina Wisker. London: Pluto Press, 1998.
Perry, Kathryn. “The Heat of Whiteness: White Subjectivity and Interracial Relationships.” Romance Revisited. Eds. Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1995: pp. 171-184.
Chua, Siew Keng. “Reel Neighbourly: The Construction of Southeast Asian Subjectivities.” Media Information Australia 70 (1993): pp. 28-33.
Stratton, Jon. “Uncertain Lives: Migration, the Border and Neoliberalism in Australia.” Social Identities 15:5 (2009): 677-692.
Walsh, Mike. “Bruce Meets Li: Mao’s Last Dancer.” Metro Magazine 162 (2009): 11-13.
Yue, Audrey. “Queer Asian Migration: Creative Film Co-production and Diasporic Intimacy in The Home Song Stories.” Studies in Australasian Cinema 2:3 (2008): 229-243.


[1] See Pearce and Wisker for a fuller discussion of the ways in which this occurs.
[2] When I refer to “intercultural” romance or romantic liaisons in the following pages I am referencing in shorthand the dominant form of such interactions which, as I have noted, is heterosexual, interracial and, for the purposes of this investigation, between characters of East Asian or South East Asian background and “white”, Anglo-Celtic characters.
[3] These include The Demonstrator (1971), That Lady from Peking (1975), The Man from Hong Kong (1975), Deathcheaters (1976), Midnite Spares (1982), The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), We of the Never Never(1982), An Indecent Obsession (1985), On Loan (1985), Gallagher’s Travels (1986), Zombie Brigade (1986), Echoes of Paradise (1988), The Blood of Heroes(1989), Sebastian and the Sparrow (1989).
[4] See films such as Satan in Sydney (1918), The Birth of White Australia (1928) or The Grey Glove (1928).
[5] It must be noted that the absence of Asian/Anglo intercultural romance was not totalizing and the example of The Man from Hong Kong (1975) stands as an interesting exception. The first Hong Kong-Australian co-production, this action film features two brief affairs between Anglo-Australian women and Inspector Fang (Jimmy Wang Hu). In addition to The Man from Hong Kong, the 1971 film, The Demonstrator also features a romantic encounter between an Asian male (from an unnamed Asian nation) visiting Australia and a white Australian woman. Significantly, both examples do not fit within the agenda of the film revival that was to hold sway over the latter half of the decade, principally preoccupations with mythologizing the nation by way of the period drama. They also speak to notions of romantic fantasy and sexual desire that are not manifest elsewhere in the popular national imaginary at this time. As Meaghan Morris observes in her analysis of The Man from Hong Kong “it was not common in 1970s Australian cinema for white women to be smitten on sight by Chinese men” (261). Atypically, in these films the Asian male is an object of desire. The Man from Hong Kong is an early example of a transnational action co-production and The Demonstrator, a little known film set in Canberra, is a political, counter-cultural drama. The intercultural erotic encounters are not central to the rationale of either narrative, but sit peripherally and conveniently enhance the internationalism of the Asian characters in the films.
[6] See Coyle, Chua, Collins, Collins and Davis.
[7] Two important exceptions to this straightforward taxonomy are Aya (1990) by Solrun Hoaas and Floating Life (1996) by Clara Law. Aya, along with Hoaas’ documentary, Green Tea and Cherry Ripe (1988), explores the difficulties of interracial marriages in 1950s and 60s. Rather than the outward gaze I have described, Hoaas’ films focus on life in the Australian suburbs for Japanese women who married Australian soldiers and migrated here. Floating Life is also concerned with suburban domesticity, and while much of the film shows the difficulty of an extended family moving from Hong Kong to live in disapora in Australia, the oldest sister, Yen, married a German and settled in Germany. Far from an exotic locale, the house in Germany mirrors the home of her sister (and mother, father and brothers who stay with her), in Melbourne.
[8] In accounting for the later release date of Japanese Story Collins writes “Like The Goddess of 1967 and Heaven’s BurningJapanese Story was conceived in the mid-1990s when the national agenda was dominated by heated debates over the republic, refugees, reconciliation, One Nation’s anti-Asia stance, the report on the Stolen Generation, and the Mabo and Wik judgments on terra nullius and Native Title. However, Japanese Story was not released until after September 11, after the Bali bombing and the “Coalition of the Willing’s” war on Iraq.” (Senses of Cinema)
[9] See Khoo and Collins for elaboration of this point.
[10] Importantly, while there is not a classic romance between Bill and Rose, the relationship, in some form, persists. This is largely due to Bill’s perseverance and commitment. The film is sympathetic to Bill, refusing to confer on him the traits of flawed or self-interested masculinity. Despite her affairs with other men, most notably Joe, Bill accepts the family back into his home after one of Rose’s suicide attempts near the end of the film and it is Bill who takes up the responsibility of looking after the children after her death.
[11] Until 1966 non-European migration was prohibited apart from some minor exceptions. In 1956 Asian spouses of Australian citizens became eligible for citizenship on a non-discriminatory basis – this was a major shift in immigration policy and virtually the only way for Asian migrants to settle permanently. Two years after Rose, May and Tom arrive in Australia immigration laws shift significantly and it becomes possible for a slightly increased number of highly skilled non-European migrants to gain residency (Markus, 168-181).
[12] The 1st assistant director was Zhang Jinzhan (who has worked with directors such as Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige) and the casting director was Li Hai Bin (who has worked with Quentin Tarantino).
[13] Significantly, when producer, Jan Scott, had fears that the Chinese authorities may prevent them leaving China with the footage they had shot, she requested that Australian Minister for the Arts, Peter Garrett, intervene. Garrett wrote a letter indicating the Australian government was in support of the project, noting that he wished to perceive it as a Chinese-Australian film. He also acknowledged the Australia-China film co-production agreement signed in 2007 (Bodey). While not an official co-production, the invocation of this formal relationship seemed to smooth the way for the film and highlighting the relevance of Australia as an unspoken “third space” for the film’s narrative.
[14] As Stratton describes, borders are engineered, by way of immigration policy, to optimize the market worth of migrants, calculating the labour value of individuals against their skill level or the cost of upskilling. Those deemed too costly or only of temporary value are filtered out or offered temporary visas.

Created on: Wednesday, 1 September 2010

About the Author

Belinda Smaill

About the Author

Belinda Smaill

Belinda Smaill is a senior lecturer in Film and Television Studies at Monash University. She is co-editor of Youth, Media and Culture in the Asia Pacific (2008) and author of The Documentary: Politics, Emotion, Culture (2010). Her research has appeared in a number of international journals including Camera Obscura, Jump Cut, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, Screening the Past and Studies in Australasian Cinema.View all posts by Belinda Smaill →