Sunflower is like a Cliff Notes version of Chinese social history over the past 30 years.
The film tells the story of the Zhang family of Beijing, a story that spans three decades and both begins and ends with the birth of a child. It's divided into three sections of a boy's life -- childhood, adolescence, young adult life -- with each reflecting a time of great change in China.
The tale begins with the birth of Xiangyang when the sunflowers are in bloom -- the child's name means "facing the sun." The little boy's future as a painter is predicted for, after all, his father is a painter.
Things have changed when we next meet Xiangyang. It's 1976, and he's a juvenile delinquent in training, using a slingshot to hurl stones at other children and adults in his neighbourhood. Then his father returns home after years of being "re-educated" as part of the cultural revolution. Xiangyang's father is strict, and he is determined to teach the child to draw, having had much of his own artistic ability beaten out of him.
Initially, the child resents his father, and the two fight constantly. In a particularly devastating scene, the child lets a firecracker explode in his hand, just to thwart his father's plans for his future as an artist.
In the next section of Sunflower (1987), Xiangyang is now a young adult and a successful draftsman. He is, ostensibly, master of his own fate, a situation that parallels the tremendous changes in China as the country opened itself to western ideas.
The conflict with his father continues, however, and his father prevents Xiangyang from leaving home with a girlfriend. Time moves forward again (1999) to the period in which most of China is turned upside down as the country rushes into the "modern" world. All of Beijing looks like a huge construction site. Xiangyang is now married and making his living as a painter, but his conflict with his parents isn't over yet -- they have plenty to say about grandchildren.
Sunflower is a long, complex film that attempts to show the extraordinary changes in China through the experiences of one family. Filmmaker Zhang Yang has said that his film reflects the enormous shift in values experienced in his country during his own childhood and adolescence.
Though the movie is not autobiographical in event, it seems to be, to some extent, in emotion. You could say that Xiangyang (played as an adult by Wang Haidi) is the new China, after economic reform, and his father (Sun Haiying) is the voice of the old China; Xiangyang's mother (Joan Chen) is the one character who seems to represent the capacity for flexibility and change.
Despite such a sweeping intention, Sunflower is not some exercise in history. The film looks at the smallest details of everyday life and has plenty of drama and romance; Xiangyang and his parents are three-dimensional characters. Still, there is so much going on in Sunflower that you may want to see it more than once. The film is in Mandarin with English subtitles.
(This film is rated PG)