Sunflower compares well to other Chinese productions that have looked back honestly at the country’s recent history, including Platform, but Zhang Yang’s film is less political, less ambitious and more personal. So whatever the movie lacks in sociopolitical insight, it makes up for with moving storytelling.
Zhang’s screenplay (co-written by Cai Shangjun and Huo Xin) begins in 1976, as Chairman Mao unseats the oppressive “Gang of Four,” only to create his own dictatorship. Zhang Gengnian (Sun Haiying) returns home to his province from a re-education labor camp and reunites with his wife, Zhang Xiuqing (Joan Chen), and the nine-year-old son he never knew, Xiangyang (Zhang Fan).
Immediately, tensions rise in the household as Gengnian tries to enforce strict rules on the free-spirited Xiangyang and dismisses his son’s artistic ability and interest in drafting. Later, in 1987, when Xiangyang is a teenager (played by Gao Ge), he becomes a talented draftsman, in spite of his father’s wishes, and falls for a young woman with whom he tries to run away. But after his father stops him, Xiangyang is angrier than ever.
In the final section of the story, set in Beijing in 1999, as the Cultural Revolution comes to an end, Xiangyang (now played by Wang Haidi) gets married to Han Jing (Liang Jing), but when the newlyweds decide to abort their child, Gengnian is furious and refuses to attend his son’s first big solo art exhibition. Xiangyang discovers his father secretly visiting the exhibition, but then the elderly man disappears again, leaving behind a poignant message.
While the material sounds a bit trite (after all, father-son dramas were corny even back in the days of 1927’s The Jazz Singer), Zhang Yang transforms the clichés and expectations with scenes of genuine depth and feeling. The first section of the film is particularly good—child actor Zhang Fan gives a beautiful performance as the young, troubled son and Sun Haiying matches him in several tense, difficult scenes. The second and third sections are also touching, but the performances of Gao Ge and Wang Haidi as the teenage and adult Xiangyang, respectively, are not as indelible as the youngster’s.
Sunflower is also blessed by a superior production, including Jong Lin’s lovely cinematography (the camera doesn’t move often, but when it does, as in an early rooftop panorama shot, the results are striking). An Bin and Huang Xinming’s production design seems to capture the three eras equally well, and Yang Hongyu’s editing makes the transitions effective without being jarring.
Unfortunately, the one stylistic drawback is the Hollywood-lite score by Lin Hai, which sounds like warmed-over John Barry. Star Joan Chen, meanwhile, does her best with the hand-wringing wife-and-mother role, but doesn’t get to shine the way she has in the past.
In any case, Sunflower is a stirring and worthwhile experience.