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The Low Art Gloominati: Xiang Ri Kui (Sunflower) [2005]


[Spoiler Alert]

Sure the time where Mao Zedong ruled China has spawned an infinite number of intriguing books, films, paintings, etc. But also, China’s quick transformation to a capitalist life and its inherent uneven execution and application with such a vast territory and population has inspired profound art.

Sunflower, tells us the story of a man that was born during the decay of the dictatorship and that has lived throughout all the modernization of the country. And while the film attempts a somewhat subtle political commentary, its main point dictates that regardless of economical or political situation, through poverty or war, democracy or dictatorship, for us the commoners, the people, life will always go on and at the end the problems that will truly affect us on the long term and on a day to day basis are the ones related to family, friends and love.

Let’s get it out of the way and say that technically the film is flawless: intense acting that strikes as genuine, subtle and engaging photography, superb editing that not once confuses the viewer, music that makes emotions flourish; everything presented in a coherent and focused way thanks to the excellent direction by Yang Zhang.

The story revolves around, primarily, Zhang Xiangyang and his father Zhang Gengnian. The father, a painter, faced imprisonment shortly after his son was born; upon his return he found a mischievous child that rejected him as a father instantly and thus he decided to take the posture of the figure of authority and discipline in the family. Even if on principle the father’s attitude was sincerely concerned, his strict control over his child resulted in oppression.

Determined for his son to be a painter as well, he restricts his son from the company of the other child in the neighborhood, forcing him to learn to draw instead. Naturally, Xiangyang rebels, making the father feel forced to punish him.

A turning point comes with the massive earthquake of 1976. Gengnian becomes a prominent figure in the provisional shelter thanks to the manual labor he learnt in prison, he also succeeds in making drawing exciting for his son with some flip-book animation, leading Xiangyang to acknowledge Gengnian as his father.

However, the father unable to devise another method to raise his child, he continues with aggressive discipline, depriving his son from a healthy social life, causing in the son an ever increasing anger towards the parents; the mother, passive, unquestionable accomplice of the depression that torments her son as he gets older, and the father alienating him on every chance he gets, drives Xiangyang in his late teens to disassociate himself emotionally and socially from his parents, at least in his mind, making it easy for him to lie to them, to not share thoughts or feelings with them and ultimately to decide to leave them and the town altogether.

Unsurprisingly, the father hopelessly convinced he can manipulate, control and direct the life of his son prevents Xiangyang’s escape.

Fast forward to 1999, the city in full modern splendor, the suburbs with countless apartment buildings with only the vestiges of what feels a lifetime ago yet only like yesterday at the same time, with the old housing style, mostly abandoned and soon to be demolished.

The mother divorced as a strategy to get an apartment from the government as soon as possible, and the son now married with a woman as inexpressive and timid as he is, but the father stays in the old house on his eternal path to loneliness, visiting from time to time his wife and his son.

It is not until the death of Old Liu, an old friend that Gengnian chose to ignore since he found out he was the one to tell the authorities that he was a painter, while actually throughout the years they played xiangqi (chinese chess,) even after the rupture, although each one made their move when the other was not around the public table, that he realized how lonely he was and all because of his own fault.

The recent abortion Xiangyang’s wife had, both arguing they were not ready to be parents, signified the last straw to his father for the “selfish” decision to private him from a grandson, but after the cat and its offspring that Gengnian was feeding disappeared and with Old Liu’s death, a tragic truth was crystal clear: his stubbornness that drew away his only son and his only friend, his utter incapability to demonstrate any kind of love or care for Xiangyang, the “discipline” that was mere abuse, the forced profession on his son. He wasn’t just a bad father, plainly, he was not one.

A very myopic and simple-minded analysis would be to think that is the way things are in China, that all of this is a direct result of living under a dictatorship in a communist country... Throughout the last years of Mao in a controlled society, within the poorest, a community was alive, the neighborhood serving as some sort of bigger family, that is where Xiangyang was born, as he grew older, the comfort and benefits of the modern world reached him, yet the change of the times did not affect the real human struggle, of father and son, love and family, just as anywhere else around the world.

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