Judge Clark Douglas doesn't have any sunflowers in his yard. As a substitute, he lights daffodils on fire.
Our review of Sunflower (Blu-ray), published May 26th, 2011, is also available.
"The time has come to do something for myself."
"You will never be able to run away. Do you hear me?"
Facts of the Case
Xiangyang (Zhang Fan) is a happy and carefree nine-old-year child living in China. He barely remembers his father (who has been in a reform camp for the past six years), but has a loving mother (Joan Chen, Twin Peaks) and a lot of friends. When Xiangyang's father (Haiying Sun, Getting Home) unexpectedly returns home in 1976, things start to change drastically. Xiangyang's freedom is suddenly taken from him. He is no longer permitted to run around with his friends, instead being told to stay home and draw nonstop. It may seem to be a peculiar command, but it stems from the father's experiences of the past year.
Before the father was placed in a reform camp, he was a very talented artist. However, the guards in the camp chose to punish the father by crushing his hand. Years later, he no longer has the ability to paint, and attempts to live vicariously through Xiangyang. Never mind that Xiangyang does not have the passion for art that his father does. The father wants the son to be a great painter, and he's going to ensure that this happens no matter what. As you might expect, a deep and bitter rift begins to form between Xiangyang and his father.
Fast forward to 1987, and Xiangyang (now played by Ge Gao) is working as a draughtsman. He still yearns to be free of his father's authority, but that isn't as much of a problem as it once was. Xiangying is also beginning to fall in love with a girl. He's never met her, but he's absolutely in love with her. Every day, Xiangyang goes to watch this girl ice skate, and draw pictures of her. He puts considerably more passion and skill into these pictures than anything he does for his father. With romance entering his life for the first time, Xiangyang is beginning to feel that sense of giddy freedom again.
Fast forward again to 1999, when Xiangyang (now played by Wang Haidi) is married with a successful career as a painter. He begrudgingly continues to maintain regular contact with his parents, though doesn't yet know his father has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. However, Xiangyang has discovered his wife is pregnant. Unready to take on the responsibility of raising a child, he determines to abort the baby. When his parents discover this, it leads to the most intense emotional conflict of Xiangyang's life.
Sunflower is a deeply absorbing film that digs into the decades-long relationship between a father and a son. Resentment, bitterness, anger, and hatred are the dominating tones of their relationship, occasionally punctuated by a brief burst of warmth during attempts at healing that will inevitably fail. In this examination of the film's two primary characters, Sunflower proves to be both wise and insightful. We will most assuredly be persuaded to side with Xiangyang the majority of the time, but both characters are given complex dimensions that keep them from becoming simplistic in their respective roles of protagonist/antagonist.
The female characters in the film are important as well, but this film keeps them outside the primary conflict. The mother often timidly stands in the background feeling sorry for her son, only becoming particularly aggressive or active when she agrees with something her husband is doing. It's quietly evident that she fears her spouse to a certain degree…at least during her younger years. Joan Chen's very fine performance prevents the character from merely becoming a background prop.
Sunflower has a somewhat lengthy running time of 133 minutes, which is well-deserved. It spends roughly 40 to 45 minutes on each segment, fully fleshing out the current status of the relationship during that period. In addition, the film also sets the political tone of each decade. Various rallies, announcements, and political actions are used as a backdrop for the story. While these will not play an important role in the plot, they very successfully give viewers unfamiliar with China a good idea of what life in general was like during each of these periods.
Director Zhang Yang has crafted an authentic story, but also an accessible one. Those who get nervous when hearing the words "foreign film" can relax. This is a movie audiences all around the world will be able to relate to, particularly fathers and sons who have ever had any level of strain or bitterness in their relationship. There are many moments that ring very true from an emotional perspective, transcending such things as culture or location. Sunflower moves slowly enough to soak in the depth of the characters, but never drags or wanders around aimlessly.
The DVD transfer is quite strong. This is a well-shot film, making good use of its locations. Tasteful and convincing production and set design are assets too. All of these work together to create a film that is quite pleasing to look at. Sound is quite solid, with a gentle keyboard score blending very warmly with the dialogue and somewhat understated sound design. Extras are limited to a nice little making-of featurette and a theatrical trailer.
This is a lovely and rewarding film that is well worth a look. Check it out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• "The Making of Sunflower"
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