Still Life, The World, and 24 City) to a transcendent Hou Hsiao Hsien love story (Three Times). In Sunflower, a 2005 film I just caught up with this weekend, director Zhang Yang looks at those changes through the lens of an ordinary family in Beijing.
In an interview on the DVD, Zhang says this was his most personal movie to date. “Watching this film is like watching myself grow up,” he says. The family in it – a mother (a successfully deglamorized Joan Chen), a father (Sun Haiying), and their son, the independent-minded Xiangyang (who is played by three actors at ages 9, 19 and 32) – shares the director’s last name, and what happens to them has the feel of closely observed daily life, though it sometimes feels a bit simplified or sentimentalized.
Zhang’s other movies include Quitting, a melodramatic documentary-style narrative in which real people play out a dramatized version of things they actually lived through, as an actor becomes a cult hit in the city, gets addicted to drugs, abuses everyone around him, and tries to kick the habit with the help of a surprisingly supportive family. Zhang also directed Getting Home, an As I Lay Dying-style black comedy about a rural man who journeys through Southwest China with the body of a dead friend, determined to bury him in his home town.
The action in Sunflower is much more mundane: One of the most touching scenes involves young Xiangyang’s separation from his beloved kitten. The drama is supplied in equal parts by Xiangyang’s lifelong power struggle with his father and the family’s fight to survive under the capricious Chinese bureaucracy in the years closely preceding and following Mao’s death.
Xiangyang’s (and director Zhang's) generation is rebelling against Confucian ideas about omniscient parents and obedient children, encouraged in part by the cultural revolution that elevated the young members of the Red Guard. The tension between father and son is also intensified by the fact that his father’s choices in life were so limited by the turbulent times he lived through. His personal frustration makes him all the more determined to see his son succeed where he failed.
Xiangyang’s father, an artist, was sentenced to six years in a reeducation camp where they broke one of his hands as part of a campaign to redirect him to a less effete occupation. He comes home a half-beaten man, prone to drinking too much and expecting too little of everything but his son, who he grooms as an artist against the boy's will.
The family lives in an old-fashioned compound in Beijing. The camera swoops through its alleys, over its rooftops, and then down to the ground for a look at the life within its walls, showing us the beauty of the old buildings and the strength of the connections between its residents, who share much more than a courtyard. (Cinematographer Jon Lin also shot Eat Drink Man Woman and The Wedding Banquet.)
Those ties are not overly idealized – Xiangyang’s father grows far more distant from one of his closest neighbors, for instance, when he learns that the neighbor was coerced into inventing the report that led to the father’s arrest and detention. But the joy the kids find in each other’s company and the matter-of-fact way the adults pitch in to help one another makes you feel the loss as these compounds get razed when a the forest of Western-style high rise apartments, shopping malls and freeways take over Beijing.
Not everything is so deftly done. There’s no music behind most of the scenes, which adds to the sense of reality, but when music is added it’s ladled on thick, slow piano music and syrupy strings amping up the pathos while one of the characters makes one of those deadly speeches in which someone spells out just what he or she has been thinking and feeling all these years.
The best parts of Sunflower are the ones that seemingly capture people unaware as they go about their lives, freezing in place to listen warily when an official announcement comes over the local loudspeaker, watching a crudely rousing patriotic movie in the square, or erupting into battle over who has the right to one of the coveted new apartments the Party is doling out. It's also interesting to see the kids amuse themselves with handmade toys and games, growing up without TV in an era that seems far more than a couple of decades removed from the last third of the movie.
What interests Zhang most is what happens within the family units, since that’s where we spend most of our time, form our deepest attachments, and are most truly ourselves. Sunflower feels like an art-house soap opera at times, but at its best it’s a tribute to the power of that love. Radical shifts in a culture may test family ties, this movie says, but it can never break them.