The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
Scholarship & Awards Banquet -
CONTROVERSIAL CONTENT. Zhou Wei, left, and Yu Hong say goodbye before she leaves for university in Beijing in director Lou Yeís Summer Palace. (Photo courtesy of Palm Pictures)
From The Asian Reporter, V18, #14 (April 1, 2008), page 20.
Lou Yeís sexy, stylish love story titillates against a backdrop of Chinese political history
Directed by Lou Ye
Produced by Laurel Films, Dream Factory,
Rosem Films, and Fantasy Pictures
Distributed by Palm Pictures
By Toni Tabora-Roberts
Despite being deemed too controversial for Chinese censors due to explicit sex scenes and political overtones, Lou Yeís Summer Palace premiered in competition for the prestigious Palme díOr at this yearís Cannes Film Festival. Because Ye failed to obtain proper permissions for screening the film, Summer Palace is barred in China and Ye is banned from making films for five years by the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television.
With a minefield like that surrounding the film, you might expect some pretty hot stuff. Iíd say that Ye delivers on that promise. Iíll get it out of the way ó yes, the film contains innuendo, straight-up copulation, and even some frontal nudity. Thereís also a good amount of political backdrop reflecting Chinaís volatile history, another reason for Chinese authorities to worry. In the end, though, the film is really a moody, erotic, epic love story.
The story follows the journey of the beautiful and troubled Yu Hong (Lei Hao), a tempestuous country girl who leaves her home village of Tumen to attend Beijing University in the big city. We donít learn much of her backstory (or that of anyone else, for that matter), except that her father raised her on his own after her mother died. That might explain Yu Hongís generally dour nature. She leaves her father and her hometown boyfriend to explore a whole new world of excitement and drama.
At school she is befriended by an alluring student radical named Li Ti (Ling Hu), who introduces Yu to the man who will become the object of her intense focus for the rest of the film, the hunky Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo). Yu and Zhou begin a passionate romance that eventually turns sour, leading to turmoil and betrayal. As their love spoils, political unrest in China is heightened. This first chapter of the film, the attentive unfolding of Yu and Zhouís tumultuous university love story, concludes with the violent 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square.
The second half of the film floats in and out of Yu and Zhouís now separate lives ó Yu bounces around China and Zhou is enlisted to military camp, then moves to Berlin ó and is set against various historical events, including the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Primarily, we hear Yuís story of pain, yearning, and restlessness. Eventually Yu and Zhou reconnect to see if the passion is still there after a decade apart.
Early on, the film takes on a feverish tone from Yuís dramatic parting with her village boyfriend and then her transformation to city life. Scenes of life at the university in the late 1980s are energetic and intense, expressing the fresh idealism in the young students. This section is the strongest part of the movie and the most filmic. Handheld camera shots, combined with patient, observant moments make for some powerful imagery. Yu and the other students are very engaging as they search for ways to live life most intentionally, and most intensely ó that youthful zest before you get jaded and complacent.
In contrast, the latter part of the film seems almost listless, reflecting Yu and Zhouís ongoing search for meaning and love. The scenes jump around as Yu and Zhou go to different places. The shift in energy reflects the transition of the characters to the realities of society and adulthood. Throughout the film, the musical score provides the spirit of the many phases of Yuís journey in an effective, albeit sometimes heavy-handed, way.
Overall there is very limited dialogue. The film instead relies on voiceover and journal readings from Yu. At moments the film drags a bit (itís over two hours long and admittedly some of the sex scenes are gratuitous), but the patient, impressionistic storytelling is solid. As the protagonist, Yuís character is the most developed. Rather than lacking in character development, the others, like Zhou and Ti, exist as notions, characters who could be anyone, like you or me. The story exists as more of the representative idea of a time- and place-based love story versus a specific, character-based narrative. All in all the film is quite compelling.
As an interesting portrait of youth and politics in China, Summer Palace is worth checking out. The film is screening at Living Room Theaters, located at 341 S.W. Tenth Avenue in Portland. For more information, including show times, call (971) 222-2010 or visit <www.livingroomtheaters.com>. To learn more about the film, visit <www.summerpalacefilm.com>.