Of how many movies of late, or any time, can you say that “it took courage to make this film”? Summer Palace (颐和园), can be safely said to be one of those films.
We’ve been seeing copies of it around the stores and snapped one up, but didn’t get around to watching it until now. This is the only honest piece of Chinese filmmaking we’ve seen in a long time. Get a copy of it while you can.
Although you might have heard that the story revolves around a love story set during the tumultuous days of 1989 when the shit hit the fan in a big way at some otherwise boring square in central Beijing, the story is really about more than that: it’s about the trajectory of entire generation, Lou Ye’s generation—he was in university around that time, part of a cohort that would come to be known as China’s sixth-generation of filmmakers.
The film begins like a paean to youth and the heady days of university life, with snowball fights and soccer matches, poetry readings and smoky bars, and of course, sexual trysts in the single-sex dorm rooms.
The camera ducks and weaves down hallways and up staircases, lounges in the rowboats at dusk and lingers in bed with heaving bodies of exhausted lovers.
Cui Jian and and a steady thump of anthemic Chinese and Western rock songs plays in the background. It’s a love to end all loves, the kind that you know beforehand cannot and will not last. Lou’s fondness, in this section, for arty piano music and poetic monologues of youthful angst and artistic despair, sometimes feels a bit much, but on the other hand it also has the quality of a poem scrawled on the back of a celluloid napkin—a bit rough, but possessing that kernel of truth that, while great to watch, also makes you think that you’ve been cheated by watching the countless films that have never even come close.
Yu Hong and Zhou Wei’s love, like that historical moment and youthful ebullience in general, doesn’t last (and perhaps is not meant to).
In fact, their loves goes up in flames at just about the time when the students hit the streets—and then hit the pavement. There’s actual footage of the June 4th protests, though not much, and there’s the hint of the violence—soldiers with guns, trucks on fire. You don’t see anyone get gunned down, but nonetheless, for a fictional film to deal with these issues so directly was a bit of a shock to us. This is, to our knowledge, one of the first fictional films to deal so directly with June 4th.*
After the fallout, the lovers go their separate ways. Yu Hong drops out and returns to rural China, while Zhou Wei and other classmates head to Germany. From here the film, like Ha Jin’s recent novel, grapples with life in the diaspora or life in exile, depending on how you want to look at it. The former elite university students work jobs that are beneath them, try to fit in, try to somehow pretend like their lives are normal and not some constant and precarious balancing act of remembrance and forgetting. Yu Hong ends up in Wuhan in a series of dead-end relationships. She says that only through sex do men appreciate what a kind and good person she is. Most of the time she’s distraught and weepy and seemingly on the edge of a nervous breakdown. She’s a fallen woman and yet a saint—it’s all very Breaking the Waves-esque. She says she has paid the price for her idealism and no matter how low she gets, she’ll still find a way of going on.
Time passes. The clothes change, white hairs appear, smiles become reluctant, everyone seems to have been weighed down by life without knowing why. People are still making love, but no one is in love. The youthful urgency is gone, people fuck just to allay the loneliness and break up the monotony. The acting, for the most part, is fine, though Hao Lei, who plays Yu Hong—this is the kind of role that can really make a person’s career, or at least give it a huge push forward. She’s really a joy to watch, and not just because she’s hot.**
Do the star-crossed lovers meet again? Well, of course they do. But what happens? Watch the film and find out.
Final thoughts, for now: they call Wong Kar-wai the “auteur of time”, but we think that Lou Ye has a much more compelling (and realistic) vision of time. In Summer Palance, time is the dimension by which we measure loss, or put another way (cf. Henri Bergson in a strange and not altogether accurate way), time is a duration, the duration of a search for something (or someone) left behind. This might be something that most people spend a lot of time doing, but the characters of Summer Palace somehow make it seem like it’s encoded in their generational DNA, and they’ll never stop trying to figure out what things might have been like had “things turned out differently”, both personally and socially/politically. You might have noticed that we’ve been gushing—but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have our criticisms of the film. But we could save those for another post. Or we could wait for a reader to write some good points in the comments.
*We only wonder what the actors were thinking—they are all too young to have any more than a fleeting memory of that time.
**Judging from her blog, she’s also done some singing. We know what being a movie star in China means. Let’s just hope that she saves herself most of the sappiest shit and remembers to make some more serious films along the way.
Also on Shanghaiist:
Lou Ye’s film Summer Palace–to screen or not to screen?
Extra! Extra! Wikipedia, Jia Zhangke and streetgirls