Chinese-Australian film director Tony Ayres thrills to the chase
Macau-born filmmaker focused on racial and personal identity in his earlier work, but he's branching out with a thriller
When Tony Ayres directed his semi-autobiographical breakthrough feature The Home Song Stories in 2007, it was entirely possible that he was consigning himself to a box labelled "Chinese-Australian filmmaker".
In fact, he concedes, "I was in that box for quite a while", with earlier films such as China Dolls (1998) and Sadness (1999) also drawing on his ethnic heritage.
The writer-director was born in Macau and moved to Australia with his mother at age three. The Home Song Stories - which won multiple prizes in Australia, and also the Golden Horse Awards (in Taiwan) for best original screenplay (for Ayres) and best actress (for Joan Chen Chong) - came out of his coming to terms with his past and addressed his troubled relationship with his mother.
Portrayed in the film by Chen, she had moved Ayres and his little sister to Melbourne soon after arriving Down Under with his Australian seaman father. "And I was trying to deal with the profound effect of her death and trying to understand her," he says.
In recent years Ayres has undertaken a wide variety of work for TV that has ranged from creating and executive producing children's series Nowhere Boys to being one of the directors of The Slap, the equally successful series adaptation of the bestselling Australian novel about the repercussions when a child is slapped at a party.
Ayres is in his element juggling this impressive variety of work. "I have always been a bit of a butterfly with a range of interests and tastes," he says, believing his projects are diverse "in the same way someone's identity is multifarious".
"For the moment this feels like the right place for me to be," he adds. "Being able to speak to an audience, you feel like you are contributing to a national debate, you are part of the culture. I have a dream job."
The American version of The Slap, starring Peter Sarsgaard and Uma Thurman, and with Ayres on board as one of its executive producers, is due to air on NBC from February 12. He also created Glitch, a six-part "supernatural show" set in the fictional Australian country town of Yoorana for the Australian Broadcasting Network that also is being sold internationally by NBCUniversal.
This has all been done under the auspices of Matchbox Pictures, the Melbourne- and Sydney-based production company Ayres helped found. In 2013, it was bought out by NBCUniversal.
The 53-year-old filmmaker laughs at suggestions that the deal is so lucrative that he is now able to finance his own movies. Still, it's only in the past year that Ayres has made another feature. And there's not an ethnic Chinese person in sight in it.
Cut Snake - whose name comes from an Australian expression "mad as a cut snake" - is a "sexy crime thriller" that's set in small-town Australia in the 1970s. Gripping and suspenseful, with exceptional performances by its lead actors, it is a world away from The Home Song Stories.
Alex Russell plays Sparra Farrell, a young man who has made a new life for himself in a small town, living with his girlfriend in their own home and holding down a job, all without revealing that he has served time in jail. Then his former cellmate Pommie, played by Sullivan Stapleton, knocks on Sparra's door and his life changes forever.
"The project came to me as a director in 2009. I was approached by the producer," Ayres, who also co-produced Cut Snake, says.
"But it takes a long time to finance a film in Australia. What appealed was the combination of it being a thriller - I had not directed one before and I was interested to do that - and love triangle, a mixed-genre quality which I really respond to. The Home Song Stories was very personal. In a way, this is a more self-conscious film. It's very deliberately a thriller. It plays with a lot of content tropes."
Cut Snake was extremely well-received at the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival, where it had its world premiere. Due for commercial release in Australia later this month, it had previously screened elsewhere, including at the Toronto International Film Festival last September and this year's Palm Springs International Film Festival.
Ayres thinks it is drawing too long a bow to say that both The Home Song Stories and Cut Snake deal with issues of identity. Still, the filmmaker concedes everyone has recurring themes they are drawn to, subjects that move and affect them. In his case they include complicated relationships, conflicted feelings and unrequited love. "They are recurring in both the work that I create and the subject matters that I am drawn to."
At the very least, both Ayres' 2007 and latest films are about someone trying to deal with the past - albeit in different ways. " Cut Snake is about someone trying in a different way to deal with the past, but in a much more present way," is how its director-producer describes it.
As far as The Home Song Stories goes, "it feels as though that particular story is closed", Ayres says. But there remain tales and projects influenced by his Chinese heritage that he wants to work on.
"There is definitely still that part of my identity and interest that I want to give life to," he says. So he is working on a "kung fu comedy" called Maximum Choppage with Chinese-Australian comedian Laurence Leung, and he has spent time on the Gold Coast filming The Family Law, a dramatisation of Chinese-Australian Benjamin Law's memoir.
Ayres also feels strongly about the need for the Australian film industry, which he says produces a diversity of high-quality work, to engage more with Asia. To this end, Matchbox Asia has just been set up in Singapore, with the aim of making more co-productions. "I think it is really important that we look to Asia, both in terms of getting audiences for our work but also joint ventures and co-productions," he says.
Hollywood has been a huge influence on the Australian industry - but even Hollywood is looking to China now, he notes.