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Original Title:

South Korea 2006

Drama, Crime

Kang Seok-beom

Kim Rae-won
Kim Hae-sook
Heo I-jae
Kim Byeong-ok
Han Jeong-soo
Kim Jeong-tae
Ji Dae-han
Park Cheol-ho
Park Seong-woong
Oh Soon-tae
Kang Seok-beom
Kwon Geum-san
Park Eun-hye
Jeong Eun-pyo

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Story: After a 10-years prison sentence for murder, former gangster Tae-sik (Kim Rae-won) gets out of jail. Armed with a note book, in which he recorded everything that he will never do in his life again along with his future dreams, he seeks repentance and tries to become a part of society again. He finds a home at his "mother" (Kim Hae-sook), who adopted him, and slowly builds up a relationship with his new and very lively sister (Heo I-jae). He gets an honest job at a garage and tries to avoid any trouble. However, his former two friends aren't too happy about the situation, because they fear that he he could want to take over their positions at the club they manage. They don't know that Tae-sik has already left behind this kind of life some years ago.
Nevertheless, politician and gangster boss of the town Cho Pan-su (Kim Byeong-ok) wants to erect a shopping center on the sunflower field on which Tae-sik's mother's shop also has a spot. Of course she refuses to sell her shop, which leads to quarrels that Tae-sik tries to solve in a peaceful manner until the very end...

Review: If after reading the summary you expect just another one of those gangster films without anything innovative up its sleeve, then you might get surprised. The movie works in a small framework and the story surely is anything but original, but especially this simplicity makes the movie's strengths stand out so poignantly and manages to win over the audience. "Sunflower" is a character-driven drama revolving around Kim Rae-won ("My little Bride", "Mister Socrates"), which takes to heart what every drama should, and that is to work with the characters as well as with their hopes and wishes. Tae-sik is an interesting and multi-layered character, whose bashfulness hides a not so shiny past. When we get to know what kind of a cold and brutal gangster boss he once was, this at first seems to create some inconsistency with the picture that had been drawn of him up until that point, but Kim Rae-won's outstanding acting efforts, as well as many small details of his past make him stand as a believable and authentic whole.

The movie starts off rather slow and introduces us to the story in an almost lighthearted manner. Tae-sik returns "home" to a loving mother, and you can tell just by looking at her that she has gone through quite a lot in life as so many Korean mothers have, which is the reason why she is not intimidated by some thugs who want her to sell her shop. But even though the viewer is already aware at that point that this will unavoidably lead to some serious problems and more than anything else forceful struggles, we are first and foremost captured by Tae-sik's new life and his attempts to get along with his cheeky, yet also very likeable sister. It also helps the cause that Heo I-jae ("Princess Hours") can win over the heart of the viewer, and naturally also Tae-sik's, with her cute-as-a-button looks and behavior.
Another nice small detail is Tae-sik's note book, in which he wrote down his wishes he wants to realize one after another now. It's clear to us that he wouldn't have surived in prison without this book.

As the film widens the viewing angle we also get to know more about Tae-sik's former character through other individuals. When he is drunk he is said to turn into a fearless and almost superhuman fighter. One reason why Tae-sik has pledged never to touch any alcohol again. This of course also hints at the showdown where we expect nothing else than Tae-sik showing up with with quite some respectable blood alcohol level. But this predictability is by no means annoying, contrary to what you might think. Interestingly enough, "Sunflower" is also loosened up by some humor, despite its dramatic nature and some bloody scenes. One example for this is a policeman who tells the story of Tae-sik's most famous brawl, whereas the police car the officer and his partner are sitting in is physically involved in Tae-sik's brawl, so that two different time levels merge in this very interesting scene.

The policemen serve as some kind of running gag, anyway. They never dissolve any scuffles and it seems as if they always have some kind of lunch break. Another funny insertion is about one of Cho Pan-su's right hand men, who doesn't beat his subordinates like it's common for gangsters, but lets them drink disgusting fluids, whereas he enjoys reading out loud the ingredients before that. Also funny are some scenes that are about Tae-sik having to learn about the new technologies flooding the country for the last 10 years that he had spent in jail, and he finds out that quite a bit has changed during these 10 years.
However, from the second half onwards the movie becomes more and more serious in tone and the bursts of violence thrown in every now and then at the beginning now take the upper hand. What makes "Sunflower" so captivating is, among other things, the honest depiction of the gangster milieu and all the violence and betrayal associated with it. Director Kang Seok-beom is also astonishingly ruthless when it comes to the demise of the characters, and thus you will find one or two bitter suprises here. Still, one thing that completely evades an answer is why Cho Pan-su is suddenly paving his way with bodies, even though he actually already got what he wanted. A little bit more common sense would have been desirable.

The dramatic moments are convincing mostly because of the good acting achievements and the well-crafted groundwork created by the well-written characters. However, on a side note it has to be pointed out that one of the most emotional scenes of the film also can be found 1:1 in "Failan", which is a little bit irritating.
The directing isn't really outstanding, only at the end the pictures get more stylish and polished. The already mentioned inevitable showdown is taking place at a noble hotel-like club, in which fire and water are the most eye-catching props setting the stage for the final battle. Fire and water always make up for a good mix. And even if the fights aren't standing out with carefully crafted choreography, the finale is actually so effective and gripping, because of the fact that the violence and dispair of Tae-sik is depicted in its most natural and sincere way possible, so that you are almost feeling every punch to the stomach.
At the end "Sunflower" oddly can't evoke the tears that we actually expected it to cause - even though it tries hard. Nevertheless, this doesn't change the fact that this is a nice little gangster drama, that cleverly outplays the weakness of its all too familiar plot!

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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