The story of a father-son relationship across three decades, "Sunflower" is the most conventional, but paradoxically the deepest felt and most emotionally affecting, of mainland Chinese helmer Zhang Yang's four pics. With a commanding performance by Sun Haiying as the unbending, ornery father, and a glammed-down Joan Chen remarkable as the boy's devoted mom, pic serves up solid dramatic values instead of being yet another panorama of social and political changes in China during the late 20th century. Following festival platforming, this could go on to modest business as quality arthouse fare.
Father-son tensions have figured in both of Zhang's previous movies, "Shower" and "Quitting," though more as examples of changing family mores as China has modernized. In "Sunflower," they're the main meal, as an upright painter, crushed by his time in a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution, forces his son to realize his lost ambitions.
Story opens in 1967, with the birth of Zhang Xiangyang, named after the sunflowers in the old style Beijing courtyard the family shares with others. "From that moment, I was destined to be a painter," says the grown boy in voiceover, as mom and dad steer the baby toward the tools of the father's trade.
Flash forward to 1976 -- the first of three chapters into which the yarn is divided -- and 8-year-old Xiangyang (Zhang Fan) is a pesky kid throwing stones at passers-by. Using long steadicam shots, Zhang shows the exact geography of the small nabe, with its adjacent courtyards and communal life, preparing the audience for later changes as the area is gradually demolished to make way for high-rise apartments.
One recipient of the tyke's missiles turns out to be his father, Gengnian (Sun), returning home after six years in a labor camp. His painting hand broken, he looks to Xiangyang to carry on his craft, but the kid turns out to be a reluctant student.
This first chapter is very much in the mold of a Chinese courtyard movie and, semi-autobiographical or not -- Zhang's father was a film director, Zhang Huaxun, rather than a painter -- is imbued with a love of old style Beijing life, with its close-knit communal values and conflicts.
The same elegiac regret for these lost social arteries of the city fueled Zhang's bathhouse drama, "Shower." A scene in "Sunflower," where the area is devastated by an earthquake, shows these communal values at work as the families live together under a temporary shelter. Ironically, it's also during this period that Gengnian discovers it was a best friend and fellow artist (Liu Zifeng) who betrayed him to the authorities.
The subsequent two chapters, set in 1987 and 1999, which take up the remaining 90 minutes of the movie, spread their wings beyond this small enclave.
Structurally and stylistically, "Sunflower" steps aside from the more exploratory, theater-influenced style of Zhang's druggie drama, "Quitting." Pic is all in the performances, and the helmer makes the direction serve his actors.
Looking exactly like the upright communist heroes of old Chinese movies, with arched eyebrows and proud mien, Sun dominates the picture, with Chen, in baggy clothing and no visible makeup, entirely believable as his patient but more ambitious wife. Casting of the three actors for Xiangyang is spot-on physically, and both Gao Ge as the 19-year-old version and Wang Haidi, as the 30-year-old more than hold their own against the more experienced Sun.
D.p. Jong Lin, who shot Ang Lee's early pics and, more recently, "Bend It Like Beckham," brings an unfussy look to the movie that keep the focus on the actors rather than romanticizing the setting. Lin Hai's gentle music adds warmth to the often cool visuals, and costumes by Xiang Honghui look absolutely natural across the three time frames.
Camera (color), Jong Lin; editor, Yang Hongyu; music, Lin Hai; art directors, An Bin, Huang Xinming; costume designer, Xiang Honghui; sound (Dolby Digital), Wu Lala, Jiang Peng; visual consultant, Christopher Doyle; assistant director, Li Haibin. Reviewed on videocassette, London, Sept. 17, 2005. (In Toronto Film Festival -- Contemporary World Cinema; also in San Sebastian Film Festival -- competing, and Pusan Film Festival -- A Window on Asian Cinema.) Running time: 132 MIN.