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Originally published Friday, January 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Sunflower": A changing nation and relationship

Zhang Yang's "Sunflower" focuses on a turbulent father-son relationship that parallels the shifting terrain of Chinese society in the wake of the Cultural Revolution.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"Sunflower," directed by Zhang Yang, from a screenplay by Zhang Yang, Cai Shangjun and Huo Xin. With Joan Chen, Sun Haiying and Wang Haidi. In Mandarin and English with English subtitles.

129 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Grand Illusion.

Zhang Yang's "Sunflower" begins with childbirth in 1967 and ends with a similarly momentous occasion in 1999, and the decades in between focus on a turbulent father-son relationship that parallels the shifting terrain of Chinese society in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. As the son struggles to define his own identity apart from the destiny his father has foreseen for him, China's identity is forged in the caldron of social change.

From this brief description you might assume that "Sunflower" is another ambitious epic in which history plays out in both grand and intimate scales, but director and co-writer Zhang (who previously explored family dynamics in "Quitting" and "Shower") keeps things simple and small, applying a spare, unobtrusive style to what is essentially a high-class soap opera that admirably avoids phony sentiment.

In the first of three time-frames (not counting the '67 prologue), it is 1976 and Xiangyang (Zhang Fan) is 9 years old when his stern, disciplinarian father, Gengnian (Sun Haiying), returns from several years in a labor camp. A painter whose hands have been hobbled by hard labor and torture, the father sees Xiangyang (himself a gifted illustrator) as his artistic heir-apparent, while his wife (Joan Chen) strives for balance between her husband's demands and her son's need for independence.

These familial tensions ebb and flow as "Sunflower" jumps forward to 1987 and then 1999, by which time 32-year-old Xiangyang (Wang Haidi) is a married artist with a rising reputation. His name means "facing the sun," like the sunflowers his father once dreamed of growing, and "Sunflower" is most effective when playing Xiangyang's forward-thinking defiance against his father's stubborn need to "save face" and uphold tradition in their close-knit Beijing community.

Zhang has a refined and subtle touch with actors, and "Sunflower" offers fine performances all around, with Chen (a seasoned veteran of American and Chinese films) doing some of the best work of her career. The film's father-son friction grows occasionally repetitious, but it springs from a sensitive, well-written melodrama that earns its emotions with tender sincerity.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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