Let's face it, family dramas are universal: one generation raising the next, the young resisting the old, conflict, tears, intense feelings, "you don't let me," "why don't you," and so forth. Watching Sunflower, a Chinese film from 2005 that finally hit DVD last week, I had the feeling that director Zhang Yang (Shower, Quitting) must moonlight as an alchemist. Working with very familiar, common elements, he makes something fresh and new.

Joan Chen (The Last Emperor, Twin Peaks) may be the most familiar face in the cast; she has quietly turned in one marvelous performance after another over the past 10 years outside the US studio system. (Check out the devastating, difficult The Home Song Stories.) Here she plays the pivotal role of Xiuqing, left to raise Xiangyang, her young son, after her husband Gengnian (the equally memorable Sun Haiying) is sent to a labor camp in 1967.

Gengnian returns from camp unable to continue his career as a painter, and so he transfers his artistic ambitions to his son, who wants nothing to do with this stranger who has taken over the household. Gengnian has a powerful will, though, and is determined to see his son succeed, whether he wants to or not.

The story takes place over four different eras of recent Chinese history as Xiangyang grows into a man and eventually contemplates fatherhood himself; Zhang Yang drew from his own life experiences for inspiration. Sunflower is simply told. The rich period details look gorgeous (Christopher Doyle served as visual consultant) and each episode leads inexorably to the next.

The DVD from New Yorker Video includes a "making of" feature and the original theatrical trailer. Sunflower is perfect for a summer evening's rental, a contemplative consideration of love, destiny, and the strongest bonds of all.