Sunflower Zhang Yang

Sunflower Zhang Yang
It’s taken nearly three years for this fine Chinese drama to reach DVD stores after its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Sunflower follows the Zhang family of Beijing across three decades, from the dying days of Mao’s rule to China’s economic boom of the present. Though Joan Chen tops the marquee, the central story revolves around the thorny relationship between the father (Sun Haiying) and his son, Zhangyiang (meaning "facing the sun”), who are connected by their mutual talent for painting. The father falls victim to political persecution and loses the use of his hands after years of torture in prison. He returns to his family a broken man and hardly knows his son, who was a baby when he was sent away. With echoes of Scott Hicks’s Shine, Sunflower traces the development of Zhangyiang as a man and artist who battles his demanding father. Dad insists on controlling not only his son’s artistic training but his personal life as well. He wrenches Zhangyiang away from his girlfriend and then secretly arranges her abortion. Zhangyiang fights his father throughout the film in scenes that are honest yet not forced. As the mother, Joan Chen tries to bridge the gulf between the two men in her family but eventually she too grows alienated by the father’s stubbornness. Sunflower effectively captures China’s astonishing evolution of the last 30 years, as illustrated by the changes in wealth and attitude by the three main characters. Though the film is about a Chinese family, the father-son relationship is universal — anyone can identify with the rebellious Zhangyiang constantly fighting his old-fashioned father. Structurally, the film meanders in the third act and loses momentum. Overall though, Sunflower shines. This belated DVD release offers a bland 22-minute "making of” promo featurette that could’ve instead explained the personal connection between the film and director Zhang Yang, how star Joan Chen compares Chinese and Hollywood filmmaking, or how a white New Yorker, Peter Loehr, came to produce of one China’s leading filmmakers.