Clara Law’s Floating Life starts out as a mildly eccentric comedy of manners concerning a Chinese family's migration to Australia. The buses never stop for passengers, kangaroos appear suddenly in the street, and frightening legends abound about this new country’s insects, hoodlums and weather.
As these characters begin to settle in, however, more serious dramatic issues emerge. This is a portrait of a family spread to the four winds. Each member copes differently with the trauma of their “new world order”, re-inventing their lifestyle and culture as best they can.
For Bing (Annie Yip), already settled in Australia before the rest of the clan, a dogged, neurotic attachment to career success leads to depressive breakdown. Bing's sister, Yen (Annette Sun-Wah), visits the family in the hope of mending the alienation she feels while living in Germany. Their brother, Gar Ming (Anthony Wong), feels lost and displaced even when he’s pursuing the good life in Hong Kong.
Floating Life is a mosaic of vignettes and anecdotes, tending slightly toward The Joy Luck Club (1993) territory. But it is a deliberately intimate, small-scale work, a chamber piece that, more than anything, explores the physical concept of home as living space. Whether in Germany, Hong Kong or Australia, Law always rivets our eye to the specific character of a house’s architecture and its interior design.
Law is sometimes shielded from harsh criticism by her champions. They strategically choose to stress her fascinating and rare position in the film industry (a woman who has crossed from genre cinema to the arthouse, and from China to Australia), and the undoubted social worthiness of her subject matter.
Neither factor can compensate, however, for the flaws and longueurs in Floating Life. It shares a principal problem with Jane Campion’s Sweetie (1989): a highly stylised visual look is superimposed on every scene almost without variation or modulation. For about the first twenty minutes, this style is disarming and captivating: the wide-angle views of a depopulated suburbia, nesting under a cheery blue sky; the odd interior compositions that fix characters in the corners of frames on severe diagonals. But the procedure then becomes rigid, inexpressive, uneasily comical.
Another unexamined aspect of Law’s work is the troubling mix of progressive and conservative elements in her sensibility. Floating Life’s insight into the Chinese diaspora, the generational and multi-cultural diversity it produces, is salutary. But its heavy-handed emphasis on the sanctity of family values – especially its unbearable anti-abortion sermon – is truly depressing.
Floating Life is, on every level, a mixed bag: I found it thin and disappointing in some respects, but also unique in its angle of attack. And, by the end – after a superb scene where the family’s grandmother prays that one day all their “burdens” will finally drop – it is undeniably, heartbreakingly moving.
MORE Law: The Goddess of 1967
© Adrian Martin September 1996