With his previous two features, Suzhou River (2000) and Purple Butterfly (2003), Sixth-Generation Chinese director Lou Ye has earned mostly unfavorable comparisons to Wong Kar-wai. However, he finally gets away from that with his new film, Summer Palace, which, instead, moves closer to seminal works by his own countrymen. Summer Palace is a tormented romance set between 1987 and 2001 in which a country girl, Yu Hong (Hao Lei), goes to school in Beijing, meets Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong), and gets caught up in a whirlwind of romantic and social changes. Two other Chinese filmmakers have attempted historical dramas of this type, set against a backdrop of real, fairly recent events. The best of the Fifth Generation team of filmmakers, Tian Zhuangzhuang, made The Blue Kite (1993), and the best of the Sixth Generation team, Jia Zhang-ke, made Platform (2000).
Quite frankly, Lou's work pales next to these twin masterworks, but Summer Palace also comes with its own collection of beautifully dislocated moments. At times the film feels forced, or squeezed, to include certain events. Somehow, during the course of this timeline, our heroes manage to make it to Berlin in time for the Wall to come down in 1989, and to Hong Kong in time for the handover in 1997. Far more appropriate is the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Yu Hong, Zhou Wei and their friends join the fray in high spirits, thrilled to be a part of something so big, perhaps without realizing just how far it stretched and what it all meant. It could be argued that they saw it as a giant party, and a chance to sing, dance, and perhaps meet someone and get laid.
Lou himself lived through these events and reportedly based his film on his own experience and the experiences of his friends, and yet it often feels like a concoction, assembled to impress awards committees. Lots of other characters crop up, from best friends to passing acquaintances. I must admit, I had some difficulty following or caring about some of the minor characters due to the film's huge time span and lengthy 2-hour and 20-minute running time. When we meet a character, we have to guess whether or not they will turn up again a year later, ten years later, or never. Moreover, Lou further withdraws us from the characters and the emotion by providing news footage of the major world events. This footage places the film in larger context when a smaller context is far more desperately needed. Jia Zhang-ke's even longer Platform did not have this problem. That film focused on small moments rather than sweeping passages of time. We felt we lived the time with the characters, not just skimmed through.
Summer Palace's real triumph is the performance by Hao Lei, as well as the character she plays -- a passionate, sulky, headstrong girl who defines herself via her lovers. Thankfully, the film is not just a straightforward romance, with all her hopes and attention lavished on the one guy. Before she leaves her village, she has sex with her local boyfriend, and she sleeps with several other guys -- including a married man -- along her journey. To that end, the film is riddled with explicit sex scenes, although, unlike Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, they provide a great deal more than just shock value. They serve the movie, rather than taking us out of it. They enhance Yu Hong's character and illustrate the different directions she finds herself tugged in. Hao Lei gives a fearless, physical performance, using every molecule of her being. When, in one scene, she has a kind of mental breakdown and lies down in the bed of an empty swimming pool, we can practically feel the screen go limp.That scene is one of the best in the film, simply because Lou allows himself time to luxuriate in it. He drowns out the sound with an appropriately chosen piece of pop music and concentrates on visual details such as light and falling flower petals. It dislocates the scene from time and from plot and makes it memorable by itself. Lou miraculously accomplishes this many times, most surprisingly during the first Tiananmen sequence. Our heroes have managed to escape getting shot by boarding flatbed trucks. Happily on their way, they begin singing at the top of their lungs, followed by a long walk home, high on the day's events. Lou slows down these moments and makes them seem alive. They shiver with youth's powerful, carefree optimism. Despite its problems, Summer Palace is still a good film thanks to these sweep-away moments. However, it looks to be the last from Lou for a while. Like The Blue Kite and Platform, it has been banned in China, and a five-year filmmaking ban -- similar to the one Tian Zhuangzhuang suffered -- has been placed on Lou himself.