Xiang ri kui (Sunflower) (2005)




Director:     Yang Zhang. 

Starring:     Joan Chen (Zhang Xiuqing),  Zhang Fan (Zhang Xiangyang - 9 years old),  Ge Gao (Zhang Xiangyang - 19 years old), Wang Haidi (Zhang Xiangyang - 30 years old),  Jing Liang (Xiangyang's wife),  Bin Li (Xiao Ji Shi),  Zifeng Liu (Old Liu),  Haiying Sun (Zhang Gengnian).

following a family harmed by the Cultural Revolution for thirty years


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

Zhang Xianyang says that he was born in 1967.  His father was a painter and he became a painter. 

1976.  Xianyang is now a little boy and he and his friend shoot stones from their sling shots at people.  They hit a girl in the right arm and she gets really mad at the boys.  When next she sees Xianyang she says that she knows he was the one who shot her in the arm.  Later the boys are on the roof again and they hit a man with two stones.  One lands on the right side of his forehead.  When Xianyang's mother, Xiuging, finds out that he has ripped his pants, she chases after her son for being on the roof again.  She runs into a man and immediately stops.  She looks frozen in place.  The man is her husband, Gengnian.  And her husband is the man that her son just hit in the forehead with a stone. 

After greeting her husband, she calls for Xianyang and she introduces him to his father.  Mom sees the wound on his forehead and she asks him what happened.  Dad knows that it was his own son who struck him in the head, but he does not even tell his wife what really happened.  The family goes home.  Dad has been gone for six years.  It is the time of the Cultural Revolution in China and he had to go for re-education for not being patriotic enough.

At night Xianyang hears his mother and father making a lot of noise.  They are having sex.  He picks up a cat, enters his parents' bedroom and throws the cat onto his father's back.  He asks:  "What are you doing to my mother?" 

Xianyang gets into a fight with another boy and dad has to separate the two.  The son tells his father to get his hands off him, but dad drags him home.

Dad plants sunflowers in a small patch of ground.  Up on the roof again Xianyang nearly puts a girl's eye out with his sling shot.  The mother of the girl screams in the courtyard about what happened to her child.  Mom and dad are both worried that their son is getting out of hand.  But Xianyang just denies that he shot the girl.  His is punished by having to stand at attention while kneeling on the floor. 

Father was a painter, but his hands have been so damaged from the physical labor at the re-education camp that he hasn't even tried to paint.  So he decides to teach his son how to paint.  But Xianyang doesn't want to paint.  His friend signals him to come play.  So Xianyang tells his dad that he has to go to the bathroom (a public bathroom).  Dad grants him permission to go and he goes off to play.  After his son does this for a couple of times, the next time his son goes to the bathroom, dad comes to check on him and finds him playing with the other boys.  He scolds his son:  "All you can do is play!  No more games!" 

The son says he has to go to the bathroom, but this time dad doesn't give him permission to go.  Xianyang tells dad that he will have to do it in his pants, if he can't go to the bathroom.  And, true to his word, Xianyang defecates in his pants.  Dad then tells his son that he has to wash his own pants.  Xianyang says he won't do it because the fault belongs to dad himself.  Dad grabs his son to force him to wash his pants, but Xianyang just bites him on the forearm.  Dad has to let Xianyang go. 

Xianyang hides on the roof and doesn't come home.  He sleeps on the roof with his cat.  But during the night, there is a 7.5 earthquake.  Xianyang is scared and he calls for his mother to save him.  Dad yells to him to jump and he will catch him.  Xianyang hesitates but finally jumps and his dad catches him partly.  The earthquake has hit in the Tangshar region, but has also strongly effected Beijing.  Many of the homes have been partially or totally destroyed and after-shocks are expected to follow.  So the families set up their furniture in the courtyard and sleep there.  They rig up a plastic cover for a roof. 

Xianyang looks for his cat, but can't find the animal.  The people get their water from a truck.  Dad and son go to bathe in the local creek.  Then they lay down on a blanket to go to sleep.  A shirt on the clothesline blows off and lands in the stream.  Dad awakens and sees what happened and chases after the shirt.  Xianyang awakens to find his father gone.  He calls out for his father.  Dad is amazed that he is using the term "dad" to call for him.  He even sees his son start crying.  Dad is deeply touched by the scene. 

Mother finds a woman picking up lumber from the ruins of her house.  The two women start fighting over the lumber.  Everyone gathers around and dad's friend Old Liu says that the lumber belongs to Xiuging.  The other woman gets really angry at Old Liu and shouts that it was him that sent Gengnian to the reform camp. 

Later Old Liu meets with the Zhang family.  He says he know that he has wronged the family.  But, he explains, the higher-ups forced him to write an appraisal of Gengnian and still to this very day he does not know what he could have written that was so wrong in the appraisal.  He adds that he hopes the family can forgive him.  Gengnian tells Old Liu that at the camp they stomped on his hand until it broke.  He had begged them to hit him anywhere else, but not the hands.  They, however, completely ignored his request and destroyed his hand for painting.  He adds:  "My whole life is broken." 

Over the loud speaker they hear that Comrade Mao Tse Tung  has passed away at 00:10 a.m. in the morning, September 9, 1976. 

All the kids go to the movies at night in the courtyard.  Xianyang, however, can't go.  His father tells him to finish his drawing of an apple first.  He makes a hurried drawing that is so bad that his dad tells him to draw another.  He finally finishes the drawing, but by the time he gets to the movie, it is just ending.  He starts to cry.  Xianyang is so upset that he rubs his finger tips on a wall to damage them so he won't be able to draw.  That doesn't really work, so when his mother steps away from the sewing machine, he goes over and is determined to put a finger in the way of the needle.  At the last second his father grabs his hand and pulls it away. 

The news of the day is that they have smashed the Gang of Four (Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chungiao, Jiang Qing and Yao Wenyuan), who were responsible for the terribly destructive Cultural Revolution that sent dad to the reform camp.   

There is a big parade to celebrate the demise of the Gang of Four.  A large firecracker lands right in the midst of a bunch of children.  Xianyang picks it up in his right hand and just holds it there trying to damage his hand.  The firecracker explodes.  Xianyang has to have his hand bandaged, but he doesn't lose any of his fingers.  The funny thing about it is that Xianyang is then declared a hero for his brave action to save the other children.  For his "bravery" he is given special entry into the Young Red Guards. 

1987.  Xianyang is skipping school and instead is selling items to make some money.  He sees a very pretty young lady who is a good skater.  Her name is Yu Hong.  He draws her picture while she skates. 

Mother is mad at dad for not being aggressive enough to get the family one of the new apartments that have become available.   Dad says if it comes, it comes.  He is not going to give out gifts as bribes to get a new apartment. 

One day a boy rushes over to the vendors shouting:  "They're checking permits!  Run!"  Xianyang grabs his things and starts running.  He drops them on the frozen lake, but the skater he likes skates over and grabs the material and skates off with it.  Later when the coast is clear, she brings his items back to him.  She says she will return them to him with one condition.  He must show her what he has drawn.  She is pleased when she sees his drawings of her skating.  The two become close.  They race over the ice on wooden stools. 

Mom is mad at dad once again.  She told him to take the gifts she purchased and give them to the officials in charge of housing, but at the last minute he just couldn't do it.  He says it's not right.  This infuriates her and she grabs the gifts and goes out to distribute them. 

Xianyang and his girlfriend fall into a hole in the lake ice.  They are rescued.  They go home to warm up and change clothes.  His girlfriend strips down to her bra and then helps Xianyang take off his shirt and sweater.  They hug. 

Mom finds Xianyang's selling profits stashed  in one of his pillows.  She is shocked by the amount of money.  When he comes home his parents confront him.  His dad says that he hasn't gone to art class in a month.  All he has been doing is selling things.  And mom wants to know who was that girl he has been ice skating with?   Xianyang is not repentant, so dad tells Xianging he will go to work with him and he will draw there.  

To get away Xianyang and his friend decide to runaway to Guangzhou.  They will take an afternoon train. 

Dad tells Xianyang that he is a better painter than his dad.  One day Old Liu mentions that his son is going away to Guangzhou by train. 

The boys get on the train.  Yu Hong arrives and says that she is going with them. 

Returning with lunch to his place of work, dad finds Xianyang gone.  He figures he must be running away and so runs to catch him.  He comes onto the train and drags his son off.  Xianyang can only watch as he sees his best friend and his girlfriend leave on the train.  When dad and son get home, mother scolds Xianyang.  She asks:  "You'd just leave?  Where is you heart?"

Old Liu comes to get Xianyang's father.  His wife has been screaming at the troupe leader.  His wife is furious over not getting a new apartment and she is yelling at all the officials following the meeting. Dad physically removes his wife from the meeting. 

The next time there is a meeting to hand out apartment assignments, Old Liu gives up his apartment for the Zhang family.  But dad won't take it.  And is his wife ever mad at him!  She is very critical of him when they get home. 

One day Xianyang receives a letter, but his mother gets it first, opens it and reads it.  Then she does not show the letter to Xianyang.  Yu Hong comes back home.  Xianyang does not meet her at the railway station, but his father does.  He takes her to have an abortion. 

A little later Xianyang gets a letter from Yu Hong.  She sends him back the card he sent her and the skating drawings he gave her.  Xianyang runs to her house to find her, but she is not there.  So he waits until she finally shows up at night.  He talks with her and asks her why she has treated him like this?  He demands to know what he did wrong and he wants to know right now.  She just tells him to go ask his father. 

Xianyang goes home and confronts his parents.  He demands to know what right his father had to demand an abortion.  He even pushes dad down.  For this he gets slapped by his mother.  She tells him that he has gone too far.  Xianyang runs from the house, but dad follows right after him.  Dad even follows his son onto the frozen lake.  Dad falls in the ice and Xianyang hesitates to come to his rescue.  But he does decide to help his father and pulls him out. 

1999.  Dad and mom are getting a divorce.  Xianyang picks up his wife Xiao Han after her work is done.  She tells him that she might be pregnant. 

Dad learns that he has Parkinson's disease.  He meets with mom and gives her half his salary. 

The whole family eat together.  Mom says that after she is settled into the new apartment, she and dad will get remarried.  And mom wants a grandchild from her son and daughter-in-law.  Xianyang doesn't want to talk about it.  Dad becomes angry and accuses him of not wanting to share anything with his parents. 

Xianyang brings over a talking bird in a cage for his father.  Dad says he doesn't want a present, he wants a grandchild.  Old Liu takes the bird off Xianyan'g hands. 

Xiao Han learns that she is definitely pregnant. 

When the family gets together again at the son's place, from the pregnancy test and a little snooping mother discovers that her daughter-in-law is pregnant.  She is very happy and asks the young people about it.  Friction develops between the parents and the kids because they are thinking about having an abortion.  Mom and dad are very angry.  This makes Xianyang very angry and he takes it out on dad saying that he is not a good father. 

Alone the young couple talk about the child.  Xiao Han says that she wants to think about the child for a bit.  She doesn't want him to reject the idea of having a baby just because he wants to continue the fight with his father. 

Xiao Han has the abortion. 

Dad learns about the abortion.  He does not show up for the family dinner.  Mom tries calling him, but he doesn't answer.  She sends her son over to the apartment to find out what happened.  He finds his father drunk and passed out.  When the family next gets together mom tells dad that he is moving in with her.  Dad answers:  "I'm fine on my own." 

Mom shows dad the invitation to his son's painting exhibition.   The family goes, but dad does not show up. 

Dad knocks on the door, but Old Liu does not answer.  He breaks into the home to find him dead.  Dad says:  "Now I'm really alone."

Dad goes to the exhibition by himself.  There are lots and lots of family portraits and dad is touched.  Xianyang finds his father there and sits with him.   Dad shakes his hand in congratulations.  Then he goes home and thinks about the family using the family photos he has. 

When the family gets together, dad congratulates his son on a great exhibition.  He says he always knew his son would make something of himself.

Dad is not answering the phone again.  Xianyang goes to check on dad.  He forces his way into the home, but does not find dad.  The whole family goes through the home to find any clue as to what happened to him.  Mom blames herself saying that she should not have pushed so hard for the new apartment.  Finally Xianyang turns on the tape recorder and hears a message from his father.  He says he has not killed himself.  He has just gone away and he doesn't want them to look for him.  He explains how he put most of his energy into working with his son and now he wants to do something for himself for once.    

One year later.  They have a child and grandson.  When they arrive home the family sees some sunflowers in a pot by their apartment. 

Xianyang says, no, dad did not come back.  But they still felt as if he were there with them. 


Good movie.  Another of the many films dealing with the terrible effects of the Cultural Revolution on people's lives.  The husband/father is a man who was sent to a reform and re-education camp although he was not guilty of any real fault.  There he was treated very badly.  And they kept him there for six years.  And here is his wife who has not seen her husband in six years.  And here is his son who has not known a father for six years.  This reform and re-education camp basically ruined the husband's life.  He couldn't paint since the bastards stomped on his right hand until it broke.  Mom could not control her male child and he became very socially and personally destructive without a father.  So all three are negatively impacted by the Cultural Revolution.  But the hurt doesn't stop just because dad comes home.  He is a stranger to his son and because his son is very destructive, he has an impossible time establishing a relationship with his son.  He also finds himself more distant from his wife because now she only thing she seem to care about is getting a much more modern apartment.  And poor dad has to suffer because he can't work in his profession.  All these multiple forces work on dad until he snaps.  The acting was good all around.  And I recognized Joan Chen who has been in many American films. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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