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New Yorker Films/Seville Pictures
NEW YORK — “Sunflower,” the decade-spanning soap opera of Zhang Yang (“Quitting,” “Shower”), concerns the troubled relationship between a man and his son, but the film’s true interest comes not from the plot but rather the evocative visual portrait of an evolving Beijing.
Skillfully conveying the physical changes in the city from the mid-’70s to the end of the century, “Sunflower” is best appreciated from a sociological perspective. The film is currently playing an exclusive theatrical engagement at New York’s Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
The central characters are Gengnian (Sun Haiying), an artist who has just been released from a six-year incarceration in a brutal labor camp when the film opens in 1976, and his young son Xiangyang (first played by Fan Zhang). The 9-year-old has led a carefree life up to that point, but his father has big ideas for the boy, wanting him to pursue the artistic life that he himself was unable to follow.
The resulting tensions between them are long-lasting, as we see in the film’s proceeding sections, each taking place after roughly a decade. Xiangyang (later played by Gao Ge and then Haidi Wang) indeed becomes an artist, but personal issues continue to keep the father and son at odds, much to the frustration of Gengnian’s loving mother (a deglamorized and highly effective Joan Chen).
Meanwhile, the physical landscape that the characters inhabit changes greatly over the years, with the small, alley-strewn neighborhoods making way for massively scaled high-rise housing projects, and the legions of bicycles getting replaced by pollution causing, road-clogging automobiles.
Although filled with a plethora of dramatic events, including earthquakes and floods, the film never achieves real dramatic momentum, due in large part to its needlessly sluggish pacing. While individual moments are quite moving, “Sunflower” conveys the passage of its history-changing years in what seems like real time.
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