Dir: Lou Ye. Chi-Fr. 2006.140mins.
Social upheaval and sexual liberation make for areasonably potent cocktail in SummerPalace, an ambitious attempt to convey the sweep of recent world historythrough the life and loves of a young Chinese woman. The fourth feature from Suzhou River director Lou Ye is easily hismost accessible, although not necessarily his most accomplished as a sprawlingnarrative threatens to evade his control.
The politics of the pieceand the comparatively graphic sex scenes will make the film controversial inChina where it has yet to gain the approval of the censors but Westernaudiences are more likely to be intrigued by the intensity of the central lovestory. The casual approach to momentous events and the ponderous pace may provedaunting for some but there could be a small appetite for the film among arthouse regulars who embraced Bernardo Bertolucci'sThe Dreamers or Wong Kar-wai's In The Mood For Love. Editing to reduce the running timemay even increase those prospects. The film played in competition at Cannes.
On one level, Summer Palace tells the oldest story inthe book as girl meets boy, girl loses boy and girl achieves a bittersweetreunion with that boy many years later. Underlining the simplicity of thisbasic narrative is a portrait of China in the late 1980s leading up to theevents at Tiananmen Square. Lou Ye makes a specific link to the fall of theBerlin Wall in 1989, suggesting that there was a spirit of hope and youthfulrebellion at large in the world for a brief, fleeting moment.
The girl at the centre ofthe story is Yu Hong (Hao Lei). In 1987, she leaves Tumen on the North Korean/Chinese border to study atBeijing University. She also leaves behind a boyfriend. In Beijing, she meetsfellow student Zhou Wei (GuoXiaodong) and their doomed love is expressed inpassionate sex, overblown gestures and a sense of danger that each of themtries to encourage.
The slightly chaotic feel ofuniversity life and a giddy new romance evoke the spirit of the nouvelle vagueand the cinema of Leos Carax. There are also timeswhen the film feels very close to a western narrative. There is something of The Group (1966) or Carnal Knowledge (1971) in the way that the power of sex defines ageneration and its politics. American music is also widely used on thesoundtrack as students meet and dance to the sounds of an Andy Williamsclassic.
The film starts to lose itsfocus as Yu Hong returns to Tumen and Zhou Wei later relocates to Berlin. The fall of the Berlin Walland the return of Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997 are passed over in a fewmoments, like flicking through the familiar pages of an old family album.
The story feels increasinglycondensed as we learn of a marriage, witness a suicide and plod on through thegreat soap opera of life gradually losing the intensity that bound us to thefate of the central couple in the first place. There are clearly parallels tobe drawn from the notion that something died, some special spirit was crushedat Tiananmen Square but life's banalities kept on rolling along.
That is satisfying on anintellectual level but it still leaves the viewer with a film that seems tohave more plot here than The Da Vinci Code and an ending that can't fail to feelanything other than desultory.
Hao Lei and Guo Xiaodong both work effectively to convey the emotional wearand tear on the characters over the fifteen years of the story withoutresorting to the obvious extremes of hair and make-up to suggest the passage oftime. There is also a notable supporting performance from HuLing as Li Ti, a friend and matchmaker who becomes caught in the crossfire ofthe dangerous love that ultimately proves to be the most defined and memorableelement in this over extended fresco.