English Title: Summer Palace
Country of Origin: China
Studio: Laurel Films. Dream Factory
Director: Lou Ye
Cinematographer: Hua Qing
Art Director: Liu Weixin
Runtime: 140 minutes
China 1988: Yu Hong is a free-spirited young woman living in a provincial town on the Chinese border with North Korea. After securing a place at Beijing University and moving away she becomes embroiled in a passionate relationship with a man named Zhou Wei, and they flit between moments of ecstasy and turmoil, love and hate. Following Zhou Wei’s infidelity the pair’s relationship seems to definitively end, and at this time both are caught up in the tragedy of Tiananmen Square. Over the ensuing nine years, Yu Hong moves away from Beijing back to the provinces and agonizes over her lost love whilst seeing a succession of men. Zhou Wei moves to Germany but he too cannot settle, and eventually moves back to China, where a meeting with Yu seems an inevitability.
With only a few isolated exceptions (such as Wang Xiaoshuai’s Shanghai Dreams ) the work of Lou Ye represents the most sustained, if at times highly subjective, engagement with recent Chinese history from the famed Sixth Generation. As his previous film, the wartime resistance thriller Purple Butterfly (2003), demonstrated, Lou has, in the years since his breakthrough film Suzhou River (2000), developed an interest in abrasive comng of age stories in which personal trauma and confusion mirrors that of his country at large. His characters tend to find themselves poised, indeed torn, between opposing poles: between love and hate, isolation and personal attachment, physicality and dreamlike reverie and reflection, and Summer Palace, the director’s fifth film, extends and refines this paradigm in a host of fascinating ways.
Using the protagonist’s reflections on her life and experiences at Beijing University in 1988/1989 as a foundation for his elliptical narrative, Lou fashions an impressionistic account of a young soul in turmoil, and sets it against the backdrop of both national and international transformation. Indeed, the film is structured in two distinct parts, with a condensed central montage that connects them by following the protagonists over the course of seven years wherein their lives are contrasted with worldwide change and upheaval, such as the fall of the Berlin wall, the end of the Soviet Union, and the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China.
Upon its international premiere at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, Summer Palace was greeted with indifference, and was banned outright in China for its liberal smattering of nudity and copious graphic sex scenes. This aspect of the narrative is significant, especially for the ironic physicality that frequently masks the lack of a viable emotional connection, the characters at times falling into quite aggressive sexual acts in lieu of other means of connection and communication (in one scene sex follows immediately on the heels of a violent altercation). The naked bodies, then, throw into relief the masked and shielded souls on the one hand, but on the other they also contrast with the subsequent, literal violence visited upon the bodies of many young Chinese at Tiananmen Square, thus figuring in a marked dialectic and negating those reviewers who complained about the overabundance of such scenes. Moreover, Lou’s tendency to internalize the conflict (there is a predominance of voiceover narration by the female protagonist, taken from her diary entries) effectively sets beside this physical immediacy a sense of transcendence, even spirituality, and foregrounds a subjective ‘reality’ that contrasts with the objective facts of the seismic world events that punctuate the narrative.
Given this approach, Summer Palace can at times be an oppressively solipsistic experience, Lou sometimes indulging his heroine Yu Hong’s mournful self-indulgence, especially in the latter half of the film when he seems content to observe her increasing morbidity in what feels at times like an extended montage. Against this, however, is the unquestionable authenticity of the milieu. Lou himself graduated from Beijing University in 1989, and the first half of the narrative, which details Yu’s initial year at this institution (leading to the tragedy at Tiananmen Square), captures perfectly not only the phenomenological details of the era but more significantly the emotional and intellectual fervor of a fomenting political situation within a very volatile atmosphere that facilitates a life rather than an academic education. As in so many Sixth Generation works by the likes of Jia Zhangke, Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai and others, the notion of youthful alienation and disaffection here comes to the fore, but in Lou’s attempt to trace a growth into maturity and adulthood (the narrative ultimately covers more than twelve years), he sets his film apart from the crowd.
Author of this review: Adam Bingham