What if a good, often great film from an exciting young-ish Chinese director opened in New York City to generally positive reviews and no one cared? What if that same film had the pedigree of a scandal-tinged Cannes premiere where it was pulled from competition for the Palme d’Or by a repressive government angered at the filmmaker’s portrayal of its suppression of protest and the narrative’s frequent and explicit sex? Would that help? Seemingly the answer would be “no” as Lou Ye’s Summer Palace limps into its fifth week of scattered daily shows at New York’s increasingly valuable Cinema Village (for those interested, they’re picking up Jia Zhang-ke’s superlative Still Life as of Friday). Though, I guess it is something of a minor miracle that it’s lasted this long. Not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, Summer Palace admirably serves as an elegy for the youthful Beijing of ’88, much in the way French filmmakers memorialize Paris circa May ’68.
Lou’s protagonist, Yu Hong (fiercely embodied by newcomer Lei Hao) is a country girl who’s accepted into university in Beijing early in the film. After somewhat summarily, if not emotionlessly, dispatching her virginity in a field with her high sweetheart, she’s off to the big city, where the delights of living in university dorms—overstuffed sweaty drinking parties, dancing, fucking surreptitiously in a twin bed, constant smoking, turning the intriguing stranger down the hall into a best friend (or lover)—are rendered via a briskly-paced continuously sequenced introductory tour of the school’s halls. Lou’s camera moves so swiftly and smoothly to the beats of the pop on the soundtrack that the multiple edits end up bringing the disparate spaces closer together, not further—it’s about the most bravura and fun filmmaking I’ve seen in the past month or so.
This first half, in which Yu Hong meets the “love of her life,” Zhou Wei, and the two by turns couple, argue, fall apart, and come together again shows the filmmaking at its most vivacious, and easily recognizable to anyone who’s managed to put together a relationship during their messy college years. Summer Palace takes a darker turn when it hits the Tiananmen Square massacre—though the murders themselves are rendered mostly off-screen, the mounting reformist enthusiasm of the students blends and swirls freely amongst the exuberance of the personal politics governing the film’s relationships such that, in the immediate aftermath of the clampdown, its easy to see the damage wrought on those who participated in the demonstrations, but lived to tell about it.
After Tiananmen, the film moves briskly through time from 1989 to the early part of this century. Zhou Wei’s living in Berlin with another girl and thinking about a return to China, Yu Hong’s bouncing between loveless affairs, and both pine for each other. Lou who’s on record as saying, “I'm just a director. I'm not a politician. I don't want to get into boring politics in my films,” reveals his true aims as a melodramatic stylist here—his regular cross-cutting between the two, coupled with the forced dissections of the nature of love (both via dialogue and scenario) suggests nothing else. Accordingly the film, lithe and free at its open, bogs down. Summer Palace’s female characters, more finely drawn than the men throughout, bear the brunt and end up looking more hysterical, less resolute than their masculine counterparts, who generally mope their way into stable jobs and relationships. I don’t want to accuse Lou of misogyny, especially given the fiery, dominating, yet simultaneously confused, Yu Hong of the film’s first half, but the narrative’s turns let this indelible character down.
Something like a cross between Jia’s epic Platform (in its interest in the continuing political implications of the Cultural Revolution) and Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-Chou (thinking here of the redemptive power of pop for wayward, wild youth), Summer Palace, for all its faults, remains an engrossing must-see. Lei hao’s performance is more than noteworthy, runs the risk of going even more ignored than another star turn delivered by a young Chinese actress recently asked to bare much more than her soul—Tang Wei in Lust, Caution. Palm Pictures will be rolling this one out slowly, so wait and watch out for it.