Until SBS came along, Australian TV was like an ad for laundry detergent – whiter than white. The occasional Asian face that popped up on our small screens was so fleeting as to be barely noticeable. In the UK and the USA, it’s become almost standard to see an Asian face in the cast – such as Gemma Chan in Humans and Hiroyuki Sanada in Helix – but in Australia it is still tokemisn, especially in soaps like Neighbours. In a street full of white Australians, one Asian moves in, but doesn’t stay long. It’s not racist, of course, (it never is) it’s just that the writers don’t know what to do with them. Are they illegal immigrants or a gang members? The idea of an Asian character belonging to an everyday Australian family and attending a regular school, not the local dojo, just hasn’t sunk in yet.
Enter The Family Law, stage left, as ordinarily dysfunctional as any family can be, seven of them crammed into a small suburban house in one sweltering summer on the Sunshine Coast, as seen through the eyes of 14-year-old Benjamin Law, who has to share a bedroom with his older brother. Anyone who has been part of a large family knows what that’s like. It should be ‘normal’ enough even for the most red necked among us.
The Family Law – almost en masse
They are wonderful, a diverse bunch, ranging from an embarrassing mum who regales young Benjamin with the harrowing details of his birth and challenges him to imagine pushing a lemon out of his penis hole, to Benjamin himself, who dreams of stardon in some form or another, only to be thwarted on his stage debut by a girl with ornithophobia. Not one appears to practice martial arts so far, but Dad does watch Chinese horror movies. That makes him a card carrying member of the Asian Cinema Cafe, right there.
The six-episode series is written by the real Benjamin Law, Sydney writer and columnist, based on his book of the same name. The role of Benjamin is played by an engaging newcomer, Trystan Go, as a bespectacled 14-year-old dreaming of becoming a famous musician. He is learning to play the clarinet and practicing for the end of year school talent show, much to his brother’s chagrin.
Mum and Dad Law are played by two well-established and well-respected actors, Fiona Choi and Anthony Wong. Melbourne-born Choi is a Neighbours alumni with an impressive seven episodes under her belt, as well as appearances in Homeland and Law And Order. Sydney-born Wong has a string of credits, including Matrix Revolutions (as Ghost), Nowhere Boys, Glee, NCIS, All Saints and Home and Away, where he managed eight episodes (that has to be a record.) The Law parents are teetering on divorce because he is always working and she bears all the weight of the family as a result. Their fine performances give this show a great underlying strength.
After the heartbreaking Better Man, this gentle, funny but touching series from SBS is sheer joy. So far, no one has picked up Ahn Do’s The Happiest Refugee as far as I know. Come on SBS. Commercial TV is still looking for the local Bruce Lee. There are lots more stories to be told of Asian/Australians. Let this just be the start, because these stories speak to our common humanity, as well as our shared Australianness.