Writer/Director Lou Ye's Summer Palace takes place over about 15 years, beginning in the late eighties and ending up in 2003. The movie begins as Yu Hong(a charismatically detached Hao Lei, mental note to look for her in other films) discovers she's been accepted to the Beijing University. Shortly afterward she has spontaneous, furtive sex with her boyfriend in a field. The way they move quickly away from one another, and the suspicious, embarrassed looks they give each other after the act implies that this is their first time. It also gives us some emotional hook to grab onto, since her boyfriend, Xao Jun(played by Cui Jin) will soon be absent until past the halfway point. Much has been made of the sex in this movie, primarily because it's so frequent and, some say, graphic. I didn't find this film to be anywhere near as graphic as most Hollywood sex scenes, with their fetishistic lighting and camera movements.
In college, Yu Hong is a solitary loner, smoking in the hallway because her dorm room is too crowded, and not talking to anyone until she meets Li Ti. Through her, Yu Hong meets Zhou Wei and the two carry on a passionate affair. Their relationship could be viewed as idyllic for awhile, but not to anyone paying attention. Yu Hong becomes unbalanced and jealous in the relationship, despite always seeming distant and noncommittal. Her private diary, which is narrated to us, reveals hidden depths, but she never allows them to show through until they burst forth in a destructive torrent.
The first half of this film, set in the late 80's, culminates with the Tienanmen Square protests, and while this seems like a dramatic backdrop, it's hardly ever utilized. We, the audience, get a few glimpses, and a pretty emotional montage of news clips(which would never have been shown in mainland China), but there's no context. Although the main characters are involved in the protest, we never see them becoming involved in anything. It appears they just went as a lark, not on behalf of some deep seated beliefs. At first I assumed I was merely missing out because, as an American who was only 11 at the time, I was not very familiar with the events surrounding the Tienanmen Protests. I thought that the backdrop would probably be much more self explanatory to a Chinese audience, but of course that would be incorrect. Details of the protests remain under strict censorship, and most people in China are unaware of what happened. That most iconic image, the lone man standing in front of a tank, was unidentifiable to a group of Chinese college students confronted with the photo on a recent episode of Frontline. In fact, Summer Palace was banned in Mainland China, primarily due to the references to the protests, and the director has been banned from film making for the next 5 years.
The second half of the film takes frequent leaps forwards in time as Yu Hong has a string of relationships and Zhou Wei moves with Li Ti and her boyfriend to Germany. During this period Zhou Wei and Li Ti carry on an occasional affair, and Yu Hong has an abortion in one of the most emotionally powerful scenes of it's kind I've ever witnessed. Yu Hong calls college the most confusing time of her life, but she's obviously trying to regain something in her sexual relationships, which are emotional and passionate, but always, she knows, temporary. She is of course pining for Zhou Wei. Although she consents to a marriage proposal from a kind man who genuinely loves her, we get the idea that she's only doing this as an attempt to stop her own personal downward spiral before it becomes truly destructive.
As the movie progresses in time, Zhou Wei and Yu Hong slowly begin to gravitate towards each others lives. Eventually they meet, and the finale of the film is quietly devastating in it's own right, but slightly marred by a frankly needless series of title cards that spell out what happens to the characters just after the movie ends.
Summer Palace is a film I'm actually a little in awe of, and feel some weird, half formed affection for, even if I don't actually like it in the technical sense. For one, as has been noted in just about every review, the movie is a bit long and meanders a bit too much, and yet it also feels too brief at times. Particularly the first half, which frustratingly avoids placing anything in any concrete context. And yet that, in retrospect, gives the film it's own strange power. It's kinda heartbreaking to think that writer/director Lou Ye is from the generation that protested so vehemently and fought to bring democracy to China's government, only to see their every effort wiped from the public conscience. It's not too hard to imagine this movie as his own response to seeing the work of so many quietly forgotten by his own countrymen.