An intriguing first feature by Chinese writer-director Wang Baomin, modern folk tale “The Sunflowers” won’t bloom far beyond the festival circuit but has a stylish, balladic style that feels fresh in the usually navel-gazing arena of Mainland indie production. Relying considerably on the music of real-life street singer Yang Yi, helmer Wang finds a visual style — like a contempo version of a Spaghetti Western — that matches Yang’s songs.
Divided into five chapters, pic opens with Yang strolling into a dusty town in western China and singing a song on his guitar about a man coming down from a mountain. Sure enough, along comes young Ma Xiaogang (Wang Minjie), after six years in stir, who gets a job selling roasted sunflower seeds on the street. Befriended by a girl (Wu Yingying) who nurses him during a fever, Ma finds himself besieged by memories of an earlier love, schoolteacher Mei (Sun Qian); of a ruffian youth spent in the sunflower fields outside town; and of the crime that got him jailed. Though overlong at 98 minutes, laconic pic has an engaging simplicity, and lensing by Qi Rui is impeccable.