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Growing pains fade as 'Sunflower' blossoms
By Zhu Linyong (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-10-26 05:56

"Looking back" seems to be a favourite theme for many Chinese film directors as they ponder over the unprecedented changes in China and in the life of Chinese people.

Director Zhang Yang poses with a sunflower, also the name of his lastest movie which tells a father and son story. [sina]
A couple of nostalgic Chinese films have been made over the past two years. Among the most recent works are Gu Changwei's "Peacock," Jia Zhangke's "The World" and Wang Xiaoshuai's "Shanghai Dreams." Now comes yet another one Zhang Yang's "Sunflower."

An ode to change and an engaging analysis of the importance of the family as a basic social unit in Chinese culture, the 130-minute colour feature film centres on the hardship and conflicts of a father-son relationship that continue over a period of more than 20 years.

The film was released late last week across the country. Moviegoers in Beijing can watch the art-house movie in five cinemas including Sun Dong An, East Loop and Capital Time cinemas.

So far, the investment for "Sunflower," about 12 million yuan (US$1.5 million), has been recouped as its screening rights have been sold to about 10 countries in North America and Europe, according to Peter Loehr, the movie's producer.

"Sunflower," mature and luminous, weaves a subtle psychological insight into a rich, narrative texture.

The movie is destined to be entrenched in the viewers' memory as a brilliantly focused family snapshot. It glows with an interior light that seems to settle like a sunbeam, shining with particles of memories containing visions of a China forever lost in the frenzy of modernization and urbanization.

It is not surprising that the film won Best Director and Best Photography Silver Shell awards at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain in September.

It was the second time Zhang had garnered a Silver Shell. He won his first one in 1999.

"I hope that not just Western audiences like it," Zhang said. "I hope that Chinese audiences, especially the ones my age and their ageing fathers, like watching it, too."

"Dramatic changes, from moral values, human relations to cityscapes, have been taking place in China since the late 1970s.

"My movie is to reflect these changes, good or bad, through the depiction of an average Chinese family, in which the subtle relationship between father and son is typical for young Chinese born in the late 1960s and early 1970s," noted Zhang.

He got the idea for this movie about 10 years ago and completed the script only three years ago.

It took three years for Zhang and his crew to finish this nostalgic film.

Father-and-son story

Unlike many of his previous works such as "Spicy Love Soup" (1998), "Shower" (1999) and "Quitting" (2001), in "Sunflower," Zhang has gathered together personal memories and salient moments of recent Chinese history.

"Many vivid details in the film are chosen from my own experiences," admitted Zhang, who was born in 1967.

And that partly explains why the semi-autobiographical film unfolds in 1967, with the birth of Xiangyang, named after the sunflowers blossoming in a Beijing siheyuan courtyard the family shares with others.

"From that moment, I was destined to be a painter," said the grown boy in a voiceover, as his parents tried hard to steer their son toward painting, the tools of the father's trade.

Then the film flashes forward to 1976, last year of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), when Zhang Xiangyang's father Gengnian returned home after a six-year stay in a labour camp, where his hands had suffered permanent damage due to the betrayal of his close friend Lao Liu and one of his wedding witnesses.

During this time, the naughty little boy has grown fond of his independence, playing with other children and roaming the streets of Beijing.

However, his father, an ambitious painter whose own dreams were dashed amid social turmoil, decides to make up for lost time. The happy-go-lucky boy then starts to sense that the fun is about to end.

The mother and father depicted in the film are typical of many Chinese parents who both put too much hope on their children but often adopt conflicting approaches on how to educate them.

In traditional Chinese families, the father plays a paramount role and children are expected to obey what a strict father dictates.

Not behaving obediently is regarded as a serious mistake and a sign of disrespect for the father's authority, the director explained.

In the film, it is precisely the paternal, more traditional way of thinking that helps to set off a prolonged "war" between Joan Chen's on-screen husband Gengnian (played by Sun Haiying) and their young son Xiangyang (played by Zhang Fan).

"The role of the father is very important but often awkward in Chinese families of my generation," said the director.

Zhang Yang said that he believes the older generations who grew up before the period of great change of the 1970s "hold onto a series of principles whereas these do not signify that much for those of us who have grown up with change."

As a result, confrontations between parents and children are fuelled.

For instance, in a scene in the film, the strong-minded Xiangyang, refusing to acknowledge his clearly burgeoning talent in painting, even lets a firecracker blow up in his hand, a desperate attempt to defuse the father's desire for his son to become an artist.

Decades go by in a whirlwind of events that bring about a new look to China oblivious to its past and traditions.

Ironically, in the 1990s, Xiangyang has established himself as a promising oil painter yet still has a difficult relationship with his ageing father.

The contentious relationship between father and son may rekindle the collective memories of many young Chinese who are in their 30s, local critics said.

"When I was a teenager, I had a very intense relationship with my father who was too strict with me," recalled director Zhang at the movie's Beijing premiere a week ago. "I moved out of my father's house when I was 18."

Much of the story is set in the hutongs and siheyuan courtyards around the picturesque Shichahai Lake in downtown Beijing, now a bustling area full of pubs and cafes.

"I was brought up in the hutongs not far away from the lake," recalled Zhang, whose new movie is imbued with a genuine love of life in old Beijing, with its close-knit communal values and conflicts.

With long steadicam shots, Zhang deftly reveals the exact geography of the small neighbourhood, with its adjacent courtyards and communal life, preparing the audiences for later changes as the centuries-old complexes are eventually torn down to make way for high-rises.

The same mournful regret for these lost social arteries of the time-honoured North China city fuelled Zhang's bathhouse drama "Shower."

A scene in "Sunflower," where the neighbourhood is devastated by an earthquake in 1976, reveals these communal values at work as the families work together to construct a temporary shelter and share a meal underneath.

Strong cast

Looking exactly like the upright and somewhat rigid heroes of old Chinese movies in the 1970s, with arched eyebrows and proud men, veteran TV and movie actor Sun dominates the picture, with Joan Chen, in baggy clothing and no visible makeup, entirely convincing as his patient but more ambitious wife.

Zhang is quite satisfied with Chen's performance: "She is a devoted actress who did a superb job for her role. A veteran film actress/director, she knows well what I wanted of her role during the shooting of the movie. We had no difficulty in communication."

Meanwhile, Zhang's father Zhang Huaxun, a veteran kung fu film director, praised Sun for his impressive performance.

"In the film, Sun acts just like how I did in real life to my son. I watched the movie with my eyes full of tears," the remorseful father told local media, admitting he had put too much pressure on his son.

But he is relieved to see that his son has shown a sign of forgiveness for and understanding of his "cruelty and strictness" in the past, with the shooting of this movie.

Zhang said his team combed through about 30,000 high school students to find the two non-professionals for the roles of teenaged and young Xiangyang.

Both Zhang Fan as the teenaged boy and Gao Ge as the 19-year-old version hold their own against the more experienced Sun, who is widely known among Chinese viewers for his portrayal of Shi Guangrong, an upright army officer of the 1960s and the 1970s in the TV series "Jiqing Ranshao de Suiyue (Years of Passion)."

However, TV actor Wang Haidi, as the 30-year-old Xiangyang is criticized by viewers who have watched the film for his slightly clumsy acting.

Jong Lin, who shot Ang Lee's early films and, more recently, "Bend It Like Beckham," keeps the film's focus on the actors rather than on romanticizing the setting.

The movie both begins and ends with a breathtaking scene where the birth of a baby was meticulously captured symbolic of a full cycle where parents and their children interact, confront, reconcile and finally achieve a deeper love and better understanding about each other, explained the director.

(China Daily 10/26/2005 page13)

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