Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 8, October 2002

Dir. Clara Law

Floating Life
[Fu sheng]

Australia, 1996,
Cast: Annie Yip, Edwin Pang, Anthony Wong, Annette Shun-Wah
Running time 95 minutes.

reviewed by Michael Stein

  1. Floating Life is Clara Law's first feature film since emigrating from her native Hong Kong to Australia in 1995.[1] She has since made The Goddess of 1967, finished in 2000 and released in 2001. Floating Life, however, is the first non-English film to be made in Australia with local money (partially funded by SBS). Focussing on the difficulties of cultural relocation and assimilation through the experiences of an entire family (the Chen's), Law depicts the ambivalences of migration in multiple and complex manners.
  2. The narrative begins in Hong Kong at the twilight of the colonial regime, where the Chen family are anticipating their imminent move to Australia. The initial scene depicts the family's elderly father sharing afternoon tea with an old friend (who is similarly migrating to Vancouver), contemplating the plight of migration and ambivalency of leaving his native community. Whilst saddened at the thought of being distanced and displaced from 'home', he is equally optimistic about the future of his family in its new environment.
  3. Any mythical expectations that he or his family had in relation to their new 'home' are soon exposed, as the Chens are thrust into the foreign environment of suburban Australia. They quickly become victims of their own cultural ignorance and social marginality, reliant on the authoritarian Bing (the second daughter who migrated earlier) for guidance and direction in these 'alien' surroundings. Clara Law reveals the indeterminate and 'floating' identity of the characters themselves throughout the narrative, where relocation is represented as a process of negotiation and assimilation.
  4. Bing herself has a somewhat awkward and obsessive attitude to her family's arrival, having assimilated and adapted herself to the point of absurdity. As soon as they arrive in their new environment, she immediately informs them of suburbia's dangers, including 'killer wasps', 'rabid dogs' and 'skin cancer'. Law's re-interpretation of middle class suburban Australia into a site of mythical threat, highlights the ambivalent status of the exiled, voicing the perspective of the marginal émigré. This resonates not only with the Australian psyche (and the nation's ambiguous view of identity) but also the status of Hong Kong Cantonese, whose identity Ackbar Abbas often refers to as 'floating'.[2]
  5. Whilst much of the family's displacement is shown to a comical effect (including a memorable scene where the father first encounters a kangaroo), the director does not ignore more serious implications in the text, similarly articulating the potential for both personal and familial fracturing in the migration process. At one point in the film Bing is enraged that her mother has left the skins on some chicken drumsticks, insisting that the family must alter its diet (i.e. eat less fat) in their new environment. Bing angrily throws the offending drumsticks into the rubbish bin, re-enforcing the family's exile and its need to 'become' Australian. This sequence highlights the difficulties of cultural assimilation and preservation of identity within the context of the migration process. These themes are further expressed in the feature of the house itself, where the family find it difficult to anchor and adapt to their new lifestyle. Whilst they immerse themselves in their new environment (including daily TV soaps and worldwide radio) they remain alienated and dislocated from society as a whole, making continual references to 'home' and its ambivalent location. This new 'home' (the house, suburbia) represents an ambivalent 'limbo' space, one located between nostalgic remembering and mythologised desires.
  6. Unable to live any longer in their native Hong Kong, the Chens find the Chinese Diaspora equally unsatisfying and fractured. Law does not merely focus on the family in Australia as an organic unity, or the process of relocation as a definitive act. The narrative similarly focuses on the second sister Yen who lives with her family in Germany, and eldest brother Gar-ming who initially remains to work in Hong Kong. In focussing on these characters, Law extends beyond the themes of migration to encounter the fracturing and dislocation of the traditional Chinese family itself. In depicting the negotiation of their own identities (Yen's desire for her daughter to speak Cantonese and Gar-ming's trauma over his aborted son) Law depicts a sensitive re-structuring of family and identity, hinting towards its modern and ambivalent reformations.
  7. Whilst the director splits the films into three distinct locations (Australia, Germany and Hong Kong), the central focus remains on suburban Australia. Within this it is particularly Bing's relationship with her family that is highlighted. In this narrative segment Law intensifies the fragmentation of the family and its consequences. Although Bing's strict enforcement of rules and regulations in the narrative is highly satirical at points, it underlines a deeper menace and danger. Her admonitions towards the family soon become personal, highlighting the blurring and distortion of her own identity. Her fears and insecurities border on the paranoid, including obsessions that her teenage brothers will fall into delinquency and the need to earn two million dollars (should the Australian government collapse). Law articulates these obsessions as by-products of traumatic instability and an identity of exile.
  8. As the narrative progresses the family gradually realise their unhappiness in their suburban environment—largely caused by their dislocation and submission to Bing. In an ironic move of familial inversion, they secretly buy and move into their own house, attracting Bing's fury and ex-communication. Subsequently Bing has a nervous breakdown, locking herself in her room and refusing to eat or get out of bed. It is at this point that Bing's story is revealed, highlighted her own experiences of alienation and trauma in adapting to her new environment. Having come to Australia by herself in order to work, Law sympathises with Bing's plight suggesting that her deviant behaviour manifested from traumatic experiences of isolation and exile.
  9. As Bing seems to fall into madness and seclusion, her mother (as a symbol of the maternal, familial) surfaces as the agent of salvation, praying to the Chinese gods for her daughter's health and questioning the trauma of the family's migration. Bing overhears these pleas and as the text concludes she has re-emerged into society. The film ends on a highly symbolic note where Bing and her mother take a walk through the suburbs and are confronted by a neighbourhood dog. Whereas Bing's initial reaction is to run, her mother tames the dog and gets it to 'sit'. This final scene is optimistically hopeful, suggesting assimilation to be a complex process, requiring ongoing patience, compromise and negotiation.


    Title image source: Trent University's Cultural Studies Programme, 'Floating Life: Clara Law', Asian Cinema Studies Society Fifth Biennial Conference, August 20-23 1997, accessed 14 October 2002.

    [1] While in Hong Kong, Clara Law made Autumn Moon [aka Qiuyue] (1992). See Audrey Yue's review essay 'Migration-as-Transition: Pre-Post-1997 Hong Kong Culture in Clara Law's Autumn Moon,' in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, 4, September 2000, accessed, 15 October 2002.

    [2] Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p. 4.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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