CANNES -- Lou Ye's Summer Palace
is an intimate epic that works its way through recent Chinese political and social history, roughly from 1987-2001, by depicting young people's first taste of freedom and self-expression and its brutal suppression by authorities. That taste then changes course, embracing economic freedoms and greater productivity but at personal costs that lead to restless dissatisfaction and an emotional anguish that has never been resolved.
At the heart of the film is a powerful performance by the beautiful and most promising Hao Lei as its tempestuous, complex heroine. Captivating and infuriating to the men in her life, she seeks love again and again but never finds fulfillment for long. Her one great love is a grand folly, a love that challenges both lovers but will not yield to domestic bliss.
The film has a flaw in that it is far too long, a condition easily fixed with further editing. The more immediate problem is that this Chinese-French co-production may anger Chinese censors by screening in Cannes before obtaining their approval. The film could be denied exhibition in China and even overseas exposure. Certainly, the censors will find much to dislike not only in its graphic sex scenes but the entire Tiananmen Square sequence, which touches on what is still a forbidden topic in mainland China. You can only hope that this compelling film will at least get further exposure at international festivals.
Curiously, Lou situates the Tiananmen sequences -- which are the film's actual climax -- in the very middle. Of course, history did this, not Lou and his co-writers, Feng Mei
and Ma Yingli
. Nevertheless, this divides the story into two very different films.
The first is a heady, romantic tale of student life at Beijing University in the late '80s. Restless Hong Yu
(Hao) leaves her boyfriend and village near the North Korean border to study in the capital. There she falls into a mad affair with fellow student Wei Zhou (Guo Xiaodong).
The two are compelled to jeopardize this love with dangerous games of sexual experimentation and one-upmanship. These sexual freedoms, the film implies, spill over into political unrest and demands for freedom and democracy. As students flock to the square in 1989 and flout social order, the film and the relationships of Yu, her lover, her girlfriend Li Ti (Hu Lingling) and her boyfriend Ruo Gu (Zhang Xianmin) boil over.
In the aftermath of the crushing of the democracy movement, the film traces the subsequent lives of these former students. Ti, Gu and eventually Zhou end up in Berlin. Yu drifts from lover to lover, finding that only in sex can she demonstrate her gentle, caring side.
Lou deliberately and bravely drains away the romantic fever of the first half for a more focused study in social compromises and encounters with Western culture and ideas. This is necessarily a more downbeat and sober story, one that could have used a quicker pace. Nevertheless, Lou has created a remarkable portrait of a headstrong woman and a generation of Chinese that still finds itself at a crossroads in that country's history.
Qing Hua's nervous, handheld camera plunges you into the thick of all the action, whether in school dorms or chaotic streets, and Peyman Yazdanian
's Western-style musical score is somehow just right.
Dream Factory/Laurel Films/Rosem Films/Fantasy Pictures
Director: Lou Ye
Screenwriters: Feng Mei
, Ma Yingli
, Lou Ye
Producers: Sylvain Bursztjen, Li Fang
Director of photography: Qing Hua
Production designer: Weixin Liu
Music: Peyman Yazdanian
Costumes: Katja Kirn
Editors: Lou Ye, Jian Zeng
Hong Yu: Hao Lei
Wei Zhou: Guo Xiaodong
Li Ti: Hu Lingling
Ruo Gu: Zhang Xianmin
No MPAA rating
Running time -- 140 minutes