An odd combination of sociopolitical metaphor and conventional melodrama, Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yang’s Sunflower has moments of keen insight and power touching on the ways in which human character and personality are shaped by historical experience. But the story falls back too often on cliches about love, marriage, birth and death so that potentially striking moments of ideological consciousness, passion, and emotional truth too often defer to the mundane.
It’s 1976, and artist and family man Gengnian (Sun Haiying) is returning from six years of re-education in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. His son Xiangyang (Zhang Fan), who was an infant when he left and has no recollection of the man, is resentful and rebellious. And Xiangyang feels so possessive of his mother (Joan Chen), that he throws the family cat at his father as the couple makes love in bed in the middle of the night. The boy has also taken up with a gang of street urchins that callously attacks people strolling by (including dad), with a well aimed slingshot from a rooftop perch.
Gengnian is soon forcing the boy to practice drawing at home instead of going out to play, clearly an attempt to have the youngster embrace the creative dreams unfulfilled by his father. The ongoing conflict between the two is the bitter thread than runs through the story, and it becomes apparent that father and son represent the historical struggle in the present between traditional collective values of sacrifice and deference to authority, and the self-involved individualism seeping into the social system with the new market economy.
One scene in particular, where the two physically struggle on the thin ice of a pond, is remarkable in its symbolic dramatic tension. As the father pulls the son backwards (eventually falling into the water beneath) in an effort to prevent him from leaving home and going out on his own into the world, the personal conflict assumes a social logic and depth. For it is the communist elders ideologically reaching out – and failing – to keep the younger, materialistic-minded generation connected to the past, while the youth are breaking away to immerse themselves in Western lifestyles and values.
The conclusion of Sunflower (a name given to Xiangyang at birth by his father) is quite simply a draw, just as the sociopolitical fate of China itself is still a vulnerable and precarious work in progress. Gengnian leaves the family to live removed from a China in flux, among his peers in a self-contained, isolated community, and both his son and wife opt for materialistic pursuits. But the scope and articulation of the world of Sunflower defuses as the narrative flows along, rather than accelerating its distillation of potent and provocative meaning out of the intense dramatic situations that present themselves.
New Yorker Video
2 1/2 stars
DVD Features: The Making Of Sunflower Featurette; Theatrical Trailer; Interactive Features: Scene Selections.