Summer Palace (2006)

Summer Palace is film I always suspected would get made. The events of Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 were so dramatic and cinematic that it naturally captures the imagination of artists. During the protests — starting from Hu Yaobang‘s death on April 15 through to the government’s bloody crackdown on June 4th/5th — youth in China experience a sort of condensed version of the 1960s. Imagine the Free Speech Movement, Woodstock, and Kent State all jammed into six weeks and you get the picture.

Not unlike the American government in the ’80s, the post-Tiananmen Square government distracted its citizens with a heady combination of economic boom times and virulent nationalism. The Chinese government had to as the protests called into question its very legitimacy. Almost 20 years later, most of the main student leaders of the protests are still exiled. Though the romantic sweep of those spring months still command the imagination, talkin about the protests publicly carries grave risks. Director Lou Ye — who graduated from Beijing University in 1989 — was banned from making movies for five years as punishment for making this film.

Summer Palace was screen in competition in Cannes and was hailed not only for its political daring, but also frank sexuality. As J. Hoberman of the Village Voice noted, not only is this movie the most sexually explicit film to come out of China, it’s more explicit than the six runner-ups combined. Though the pairing of sex and politics is a long one in cinema, Lou Ye’s film is not Closely Watched Trains or even The Dreamers. It’s a portrait of a lost generation.

Yu Hong (played by Lei Hao) is a willful sullen lass from the North Korean border who, once she gets to a Beijing university, plunges headlong into the messy abundance of life. This includes exploring her sexuality with (among others) her fellow student Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo). At first, the two are insanely happy, stealing away into an empty dorm room for frankly depicted quickies. But as the protests start ramping up in the background, doubt and suspicion seeps into their own private eden. Yu Hong becomes jealous and Zhou Wei starts sleeping with Yu Hong’s erstwhile best friend Li Ti. As the crackdown explodes around them, Yu has a nervous breakdown and flees Beijing, leaving Zhou behind. Up until this point, the film mirrors the youthful energy of the characters with a tone that’s both giddy and nervous. The camera, frequently hand-held, feels voyeuristic.

After the crackdown, the movie speeds past other major Chinese historical milestones — like the Hong Kong handover — before catching up with Zhou and Yu in the present. Zhou lives as an intellectual in Berlin and continues to make unfulfilling love to Li Ti. Yu sports a bad haircut and shacks up with a married guy out of loneliness. Both seem still seem traumatized by these unhealing scars from the past. The parallels between these two wounded ex-lovers and between China and its intellectuals are clear though not overbearing. Thankfully, Lou Ye roots the drama in the characters rather than an allegory. The regret and dull existential panic these Yu and Zhou felt of hitting your 30s and feeling your life slip out of sight is both palpable here and universal. And that’s what lingered in my mind days after watching it.

Summer Palace is not a perfect film. It sometimes veers close to the self-indulgence and the structure gets unwieldy in places. It is, though, a haunting and glorious mess.

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