In his most ambitious film to date, Zhang Yang finds material to match his visual aesthetic

Sunflower

on August 17, 2007 by Wade Major
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The most ambitious film yet from Chinese writer/director Zhang Yang and his China-based, American-born producer Peter Loehr ( Shower and Quitting ), Sunflower is a welcome throwback to the kind of heartfelt, historical melodramas with which Fifth Generation filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige first garnered international attention throughout the '80s and early '90s.

The semi-autobiographical story of young Zhang Xiangyang (Zhang Fan, Gao Ge and Wang Haidi) and his parents Zhang Gengnian and Zhang Xiuqing (Sun Haiying and Joan Chen) is told in three phases, each using a different period of Chinese societal change as an external backdrop for the family's equally tumultuous internal frictions. During the closing years of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, when Xiangyang is nine, his father returns from a six-year sentence in a reeducation camp, overly determined to make up for lost time and inadequately prepared to deal with the emotional demands of a young son he hardly knows. His hands crippled by sadistic camp guards, Zhang Gengnian can no longer paint and begins projecting his lost dreams on his son.

By 1987, the cultural divide between them has grown irreversibly. China's liberalization and modernization is in full swing, and the now 19-year-old Xiangyang no longer wants any part of his parents' old ways, though he still can't quite muster the courage to defy them. By 1999, China's modernization is in overdrive, magnifying the lingering Zhang family stresses which are about to reach a head.

Even longtime fans of Zhang Yang's work are bound to be impressed by the leaps he has taken here. Finally graced with an appropriately vast and meaningful story on which to hang his penchant for high melodrama, Zhang folds and molds the family dynamics into the broader tides of history with an efficiency and ease that is truly astonishing. That ease also translates to Zhang's stylistic signature, previously his weakest attribute. But here, working with cinematographer Jong Lin, he is able to deliver a visual schema that not only conveys the outward sweep of three decades of Chinese history but the innermost struggles of the characters.

Featuring pitch-perfect performances across the board, it's the casting of Joan Chen as Zhang Xiuqing that seems likely to garner the most attention among American audiences, particularly China-watchers aware of Chen's own run-in with Chinese censors after shooting her 1997 directing debut, Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl without the permission or knowledge of government officials. At the time, Chen was reportedly banned from ever again returning to make films in China; that the ban has seemingly been rescinded speaks volumes about the clout that Zhang and Loehr now wield in China, and their film is all the richer for it.

Despite its leisurely pace and lengthy running time, Sunflower is a profoundly rewarding effort, provocative and thoughtful yet never parochial. Though he flirts with many of the same concerns over rapid modernization and the loss of cultural identity that were at the heart of such previous films as Shower and Quitting , Zhang Yang seems also to be addressing issues of broader significance, speaking beyond his Chinese audience to the very nature of family in all cultures and communities throughout the globe. If this is a harbinger of things to come from Zhang—who has only just turned 40—it is a most encouraging harbinger indeed.
Distributor: New Yorker
Cast: Sun Haiying, Joan Chen, Liu Zifeng, Zhang Fan, Gao Ge, Wang Haidi, Hong Yihao, Li Bin and Liang Jing
Director: Zhang Yang
Screenwriters: Zhang Yang, Cai Shangjun and Huo Xin
Producers: Peter Loehr and Han Sanping
Genre: Drama; Mandarin-language, subtitled
Running time: 128 min.
Release date: August 17, 2007 NY
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