Summer Palace (2006, Dir. Lou Ye)
I knew when I first met you that we were standing on the same side of the world.
It’s difficult for me to be objective about this film, because I lived it, in a sense; in 1994 I traveled to Beijing and taught English at the People’s University of China for a year. Five years after Tiananmen Square, you could still sense the aftereffects in the air — students wary and shy as they approached foreign teachers to talk about life in the West (and dream a little more); the slow infiltration of McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts; the undercover cops patrolling Tiananmen at all hours; the way the city seemed to be awakening from a deep sleep and opening itself up to possibilities again. I’ve been to Beijing a few times since that memorable year, and today it’s an urban juggernaut strutting its way forward … but I can still remember the guarded hope of those times.
Summer Palace is a chronicle of those times, and the times before then. It’s amazing that the film was even made; even though it’s fiction, it’s probably the most direct look at the events of June 4, 1989 to come out of China so far, and it also goes further with sexuality than any previous mainstream Chinese film. Naturally this got the movie a grand premiere at Cannes, pissing off the Chinese government (the Chinese-French co-production hit the festival circuit before the official censors had a chance to eye it) and resulting in a five-year ban from making films in China for its director, Lou Ye.
Getting past all the political background and intrigue, this film isn’t really about politics, or at least it’s about politics as much as the Unbearable Lightness of Being is about Communist rule in Prague. Lou follows a different tack from his Chinese New Wave contemporaries (what is it now, the sixth generation?) in that his influences are mainly European — his first film Suzhou River (probably still his best work) was a meta-modern update of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and his second Purple Butterfly (with Zhang Ziyi as a reluctant rebel during the 1930s in Japan-occupied Shanghai) wasn’t so much a historical tale as a claustrophobic, lushly photographed study in l’amour fou. His movies are drenched in atmosphere above all else — not everything everyone does makes complete sense, but the mood sticks with you.
Summer Palace (the title refers to the old Imperial Summer Palace in the northwest corner of Beijing, and a scenic lake that serves as the meeting place for the two central lovers) works with a broader palette, although the clear influence here is Milan Kundera. The film opens in a Chinese border town near Korea, in 1987: Yu Hong (Hao Lei) has been accepted to Beiqing University, and she celebrates with her loyal best friend, losing her virginity in the process (boy and girl are fully clothed, but it’s a startling scene). Flash forward to 1988: Yu Hong is at university, and it is as if that opening sex scene was a preamble, an opening of the floodgates, because now she is flush with sexual experimentation. Pals with fresh-faced Ti Li (Hu Lingling), she spends her time sleeping and falling in and out of love with the idealistic, brooding Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong), when she’s not sharing him with Ti Li. A typical sampling of dialogue:
Yu Hong: I want us to break up.
Zhou Wei: Why?
Yu Hong: Because I can’t leave you.
Yes, very European, and not least because Yu Hong is given to long ruminations about relationships and existence that often end with thoughts such as “I can only call it love.” Skirting close to parody, it works because Lou captures the aching innocence and sincerity of it all with his usual artful visual style (see the top photo). His montages recreate the rhythms of life at a Chinese university circa 1989: students swapping imported cigarettes in cramped dorm rooms, walking down halls arm in arm, shuttling soccer balls across dusty fields, holding chaste dances at the local bar, studying at night under the fluorescent classroom lights. Objectivity fails me here, as these scenes were a major shot of nostalgia for me, but Lou certainly has an eye for the details.
In the meantime, the university has been caught in the throes of the democracy movement — bull sessions in empty classrooms, group excursions to Tiananmen on the back of a pickup truck, shared songs and hopes and laughter. Politics are touched on, but this film is more poetic than political — Lou’s message seems to be that the tide of sexual freedom and existential musings spilled over into the political arena like an onrushing wave, the Chinese Summer of Love. Even as Yu Hong and Zhou Wei get bacchanalian (including a full frontal nude shot of both of them), the feeling of anything-goes, of things spiraling out of control, is building.
At the halfway point of the film, June 4 rolls in, and although the events are elliptical (we see news footage of what takes place at the square, and bear witness to some violent incidents close to the campus), they are fraught with panic and confusion. Just as Yu Hong’s first sex scene was like an entry into the bohemian university life, so Tiananmen slams the door on the antics. Disllusioned, Li Ti and her boyfriend Gu Ruo (Zhang Xianmin) retreat to Berlin, and soon Zhou Wei joins them. Yu Hong quits school and returns home, only to later relocate to Wuhan, in central China.
From this point on, the story gets diffuse and sketchy as we skip forward, a few years each time. Yu Hong toils for a government bureau, having lost all purpose in life, content to bed a variety of ill-suited partners (the sex scenes become more graphic and more forlorn in the movie’s latter half). Zhou Wei seems to enjoy life in Berlin, but he longs for home, and the chance to see Yu Hong again, even as Li Ti becomes ever more mentally unbalanced and possessive of him. All the principals seem irreparably wounded, although it’s never clear what exactly drove the wedge between them. It all crashes to an end with a final rendezvous between Yu Hong and Zhou Wei in 2001 at the oceanside resort town of Beidaihe (another twist of nostalgia for me — as captured faithfully in the film, the seaside has an austere loneliness to it).
So what’s Summer Palace all about, finally? Difficult to say — the second half doesn’t have much connection to the first, and character motivations vanish in the haze. This is a problem carried over from Lou’s previous films — his characters (particularly his female characters) are less flesh-and-blood people than an assemblage of emotions and ideas. Filled to the brim with self-awareness (“You gave your blood readily in war. Peace came, and you could barely take a single step”) and stranded in isolation, they’re pretty to look at, and impossible to figure out. In Purple Butterfly, the camera huddles close to Zhang Ziyi, admiring her but not necessarily diving beneath the skin. The same thing happens with Yu Hong here (although Hao Lei’s fearless performance nearly overcomes this distance).
Maybe distance and dissonance is the point; the drug-like high of pre-Tiananmen idealism evaporates like smoke, giving way to the dragging, meaningless days that dog our mopey heroes to the end. But if Summer Palace is meant to be an existential take on how love and life are impacted by earth-shaking events, Lou hasn’t taken enough care to give us the connective tissue that shows the why and the how. The adventurous subject matter, acting, and the impressionistic visual style make the film worth watching, and Lou has the “unbearable lightness” part down cold — now he just needs to fill out his beings.