Summer Palace

"Very Good"

Summer Palace Review


Banned in China equally for its depiction of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and for its inclusion of both male and female nudity for the first time in Mainland China's cinematic history, "Sixth Generation" Chinese helmer Lou Ye evinces the revolution of Chinese idealists against the ruling Communist party with a particularly wild-eyed and dangerous style in Summer Palace.

Four films into his career and already a healthy practitioner of ideas over structure, Ye sparks this absurdly ambitious epic with Yu Hong (Hao Lei), the 17-year-old loner daughter of a shopkeeper in Tumen (near the North Korean/Chinese border) who decides to let her boyfriend take her virginity before she moves on to the college boys at Beijing University. Yu's awkward nature only intensifies when she gets to the dormitories, packed in smoke-filled rooms with two or three other girls like oily sardines. The first girl she befriends, Li Ti (the bracingly-erratic Hu Ling), takes her out one night with her boyfriend who in turn introduces Yu to Zhou (Guo Xiaodong). All four dance together and it seems for the next 14 years they will be trying to figure out who is dancing with whom.

It's Zhou and Yu's smoldering relationship that defines Ye's vision of Zadong's China. The incidents surrounding Tiananmen '89, filmed with harrowing tenacity by lensman Hua Qing, are furious and confusing, but they might as well be the national actualizing of this turbulent romance and vice versa. Alive with sex and a temperamental jealousy, Zhou and Yu can only find the sense to break up out of their undying necessity: In response to him asking why they should break up, Yu quips, "Because I can't leave you." Ultimately, however, it's Zhou's sexual encounter with Li Ti that puts them to rest and sends Yu barreling home with the ex-boyfriend who deflowered her.

Decked out with a faux-poetic voiceover, Palace often jumps the rails and runs the danger of becoming a disaster; The Village Voice's J. Hoberman's surmising of it as "a fascinating mess" is spot on. But more often than not, and especially in the film's bombastic first half, Ye's manifestation of culture through revolt is enormously enthralling. Not surprisingly, Lei's fearless performance holds fast when Ye loses hold of his material, at times obsessively putting his heroine in superfluous situations just in the interest of seeing how she'll react.

Eight years after Tiananmen '89, Yu finds herself in Wuhan with a married man, while Zhou and Li Ti meet up with Li's boyfriend in East Berlin. Unable to compromise or apologize, Zhou eventually moves to Chongqing with another girlfriend when an old college friend tells him that Yu got married. An e-mail brings them together finally in a hotel near the coastline, 12 years after their separation, only to find themselves strangers to each other. Like his main characters, Ye's focus strays from their emotional frostbite to their bumbling attempts at social interactions. The immediacy that holds the first movement in reverie has, perhaps intentionally, gone all slack-jawed and unstable, lost and adrift in the minutiae of day-to-day life.

Though it occurred nearly two decades after America's own centerpiece of tragic revolt at Kent State, Ye's Tiananenmen draws some reluctant parallels to the recession of idealism following both instances. Flames effectively tempered, both Yu and Zhou have effectively put on the guise of moving on: Their reconciliation has the feeling of propriety over necessity. Was their passion for each other just a product of their environment? Ye's evocation of the 1989 insurgency (at 24, he graduated from Beijing Film School the same year) has an unshakably authentic texture which makes it easier to accept the numbness that comes along with the characters' post-collegiate life. The saying goes "There's a time and a place for everything, and it's called college." Who knew that included actually caring about something?

Aka Yihe yuan.



Summer Palace

Facts and Figures

Run time: 158 mins

In Theaters: Wednesday 18th April 2007

Distributed by: Palm Pictures

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 72%
Fresh: 23 Rotten: 9

IMDB: 7.0 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Lou Ye

Producer: Sylvain Burstejn, Fang Li, Lou Ye, Nai An

Starring: Hao Lei as Yu Hong, Guo Xiao-Dong as Zhou Wei, Xueyun Bai as Wang Bo, Lin Cui as Xiao Jun

Also starring:

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