As the Fifth Generation of Chinese cinema squander their seriousness trying to out-“Crouching Tiger” each other, the subsequent “Sixth Generation” has raised the bar without going ancient-era historical or relying on the hotsiness of Gong Li. Namely, Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye and Zhang Yuan have favored a kind of philosophical realism, and if the films haven’t hit the mass audience sweet spot like the feminist/liberal melodramas of the ’90s did, they’ve nevertheless made the films of Zhang Yimou look like a new brand of orientalism and painted life in contemporary China as despairingly as the gorgeous Gong movies used to portray the past. Meanwhile, a subgenre has emerged the traditional family saga/bildungsfilm-as-haunted-by-the-Cultural-Revolution film, Ã la Zhang Yimou’s “To Live,” Gu Changwei’s “Peacock,” Xiao Jiang’s “Electric Shadows,” etc. Zhang Yang’s “Sunflower” (2005) is a paradigmatic example, with its 30-year span, its timeless father-son battle of wills, and its intersections between family life and the dragon-writhe of Chinese history as it tried to poison the peoples’ lives for decades and did not quite succeed.
It’s a conventional film in many ways, and that has its benefits: your knowledge of the characters grows as they do, you get to see the past reflected in the present, you get to dally with the minor experiences as well as the thunderous traumas. Zhang’s tale is filled with ironies he doesn’t emphasize when the titular little boy’s father returns from a six-year stint in the work camp, he comes with his painter’s hands broken, but with a set of construction skills that helps the congested, Casbah-like community survive after an earthquake. The boisterous communalism of the weekly movie defiantly offsets the staid propaganda being shown, but Zhang zips along, trusting us to make emotional connections.
Mostly, though, “Sunflower” is the story of a close-minded, old-school shithead Dad (Sun Haiying), whose disciplinary streak and bitterness continue to cause riffs as his boy grows from a precocious nine-year-old brat to a married artist in his 30s, tortured by his parents over whether to have a child or not. The mother is played, gently, by Joan Chen, who apparently pulled a De Niro-esque plumping regimen for the role (compare her here to her role in last year’s “Lust, Caution”), leaving us wondering if this could in fact be the same actress that made crazy gay love to Anne Heche in Donald Cammell’s “Wild Side.” One late, unexplained shot of Chen’s aging matriarch scrubbing the floor of a yuppie-ish condo, when all she’d been used to doing her whole life before that is tending her own electricity-free kitchen speaks articulately about the changes China’s seen since the Mao days. “Sunflower” isn’t particularly daring or inventive, but it takes a slice from a universal pie, and I’m glad I saw it.
As film history comes rocketing down the DVD flume, you could get lost in the stacks of each month’s releases, but you can also unearth a bygone sapphire from the heap. Lionsgate’s series of multi-disc Euro-sets (Godard, Bardot, Delon, Deneuve, etc.) are symptomatic, using their star’s rep to package the lesser and perhaps justly neglected films in their lengthy canons, a methodology that almost always, maybe inadvertently, saves a rarely seen beaut from the archival darkness. I’m getting around to Ettore Giannini’s “Carosello Napoletano,” a banquet-sized fried-sugar confection from 1954 that’s been smuggled into the new, largely negligible Sophia Loren set. The other films in the box are, naturally, among the scores of Italian movies of Loren’s that got international play on the strength of her eyes, lips and hips alone, and then were summarily forgotten.
But Giannini’s swirling “city symphony” featured a young Loren only amidst a fiery ensemble; the movie, which played here to presumably thankful Italian-American urban audiences in 1961, sells itself on nothing more than Italian Ã©lan. Incarnated as a kind of Neapolitan answer to “An American in Paris” and “The Red Shoes,” the movie is an expressionist, ambitious scramble of commedia dell’arte, opera and interpretive ballet, predominantly celebrating the canzone Napoletana, the city’s traditional ballad form (reaching officially back to the 1830s) most famous for overfamiliar songs like “O Sole Mio” and “FuniculÃ¬, FuniculÃ ,” both of which are in the film in what might be definitive versions. The PathÃ©color ambience belongs to the postwar urban peasantry still immersed in traditional art (street theater and Pulcinella figures are everywhere) and the timeless sagas of their fishing-folk ancestors. There’s a thread of a story (a street minstrel and his family search for lodgings on Christmas Eve), but there are scores of stories within the story, often tales of tragic love that make for high-octane Italian songs, all played out in an elaborate theatrical Naples with a painted Vesuvius in the background. “Carosello Napoletano” won a prize at Cannes back when “International Prizes” were dished out, one to every contributing nation, but beyond that minor notation, it’s slipped off the grid of film history. Just for the raw showmanship it delivers, here’s to welcoming it back.
[Photos: “Sunflower,” New Yorker Films, 2007; “Carosello Napoletano,” Lux Film America, 1961]
“Sunflower” (New Yorker Video) and “Carosello Napoletano” (included in the Sophia Loren 4-Film Collection; Lionsgate) are now available on DVD.