Sunflower (2005)

11 07 2008

This a half-decent family drama with good intentions, but it ultimately falls flat on its face due to a constantly present sense of sentimentality. Maybe it’s just the intrusive “sad” piano music that is played every five minutes, or maybe its just the silly symbolism shoved in the audience’s face during the really tacky epilogue. Whatever the case, this is most definitely a problematic movie with lots of Hollywoodish “pull at your heartstrings” tactics. At the same time, it is possible to overlook all the presentation-related faults considering that one, the film actually is pretty entertaining and two, most of it rings true.

Xiangyang’s father, Gengnian, is forced to spend six years in an reeducation camp. During this time, Xiangyang experiences the earliest stage of his life. When his father returns, he is skeptical and cold to his father’s intentions to create a bond. Gengnian’s parenting skills also creates problems as he doesn’t approve of many of Xiangyang’s activities. To keep him out of trouble, Gengnian teaches and later, forces, his son to draw.

In the second segment, the film depicts Xiangyang’s late teenage years. During the day, he skips college to illegally sell greeting cards with his friends. It is here that he first notices Xun Ho, who becomes his love interest. When his parents learn of his “business” and absence in school, they are outraged. Xiangyang’s reaction is to run away with Xun Ho, but his plans are thwarted and Gengnian goes to extreme measures to keep his son away from Xun Ho. The concluding segment features a now married Xiangyang being pressured by his parents once again, this time by their constant requests to obtain a grandson.

Following a similar but not identical setup as Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times, Zhang Yang attempts to paint a portrait of a man growing up within the backdrop of an ever-evolving China. That sounds a bit hyperbolic but such a description does align with Zhang’s lofty aspirations. It sounds good, but essentially it seems the interest of the filmmakers lie in more in the political than in the personal. There is plenty of relationship-driven content but it all feels very over-simplified almost to the point that Zhang himself comes off as someone with no insight whatsoever into human relations. Ironically enough, on the featurette that appears on the New Yorker DVD, everyone interviewed seems eager to proclaim Zhang as an observer and someone who inherently understands all the complexities of human interaction. This seems almost like a joke, especially when one compares Zhang to any other remotely popular director in China. It seems harsh to even compare him to a person like Jia Zhang-ke because Jia is on a completely different level, artistically. I guess that’s what Sunflower comes down to: it’s entertaining and charming but pales severely to the work of any other major director from China.

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