Saturday, April 5, 2008

Summer Palace

There are long stretches during Lou Ye's Summer Palace (2006) when one feels in the presence of greatness. The film follows its characters during the years leading up to, during and following the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and the exhuberant style was clearly influenced by the French New Wave; but by concerning itself primarily with matters of the heart, the film limits its potential.

Jia Zhang-ke's Platform (2000) may be the greatest of all the Sixth Generation films partly because it finds the right balance between the personal and the political.

The story is narrated by the heroine, Yu Hong (Lei Hao), and the effect is like flipping through the pages of her diary: years pass in a matter of minutes, and the key events seem to happen between the scenes. The movie opens in 1987 in Tumen, a city on the border between China and North Korea. Yu Hong recieves a letter informing her she's been accepted to Beijing University, leaving behind her loser boyfriend, Xiao Jun (Lin Cui). Somewhere in between Tumen and Beijing she decides to never let anyone get too close to her.

At the university rumors begin to circulate that she's a lesbiand or had her heart broken until a friend, Li Ti (Ling Hu), sets her up with Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo). After an initial idyll, Yu Hong decides at some point they should break up. She sleeps with one of her professors so she can tell Zhou Wei about it, but later realizes she really loves Zhou Wei and tries to win him back.

After the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Yu Hong drops out of school and returns to Tumen for a time before moving to Shenzhen and then Chongqing. Zhou Wei and Li Ti become an item and move to East Germany.

Although all three characters participate in the Tiananmen Square Protests, the issues behind it are never discussed. Yu Hong seems to go along on impulse rather than any kind of political conviction. At most, one might say the film is about sexual liberation, and what that might entail. At the university, Yu Hong teaches another female student how to masturbate, and in Shenzhen she becomes involved with a married man.

The film was banned by the Chinese government, and while Lou claims this is because it didn't meet the technical standards for sound and image, this doesn't explain why he's been banned from filmmaking for five years. Given the film's timid approach to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and the fact that films as critical as Jia's The World (2004) and Still Life (2006) were approved, I suspect the ban wasn't for the film's politics but its graphic sexuality. The sex is actually the least interesting part of the movie--not because everything else is esspecially wonderful, but simply because the sex scenes themselves are boring. Once you've seen one, you've seen them all.

What's exciting about the movie is its elliptical handling of narrative and woozy camera style which both recall the films of Olivier Assayas (esspecially Fin aoùt, début septembre [1998] and demonlover [2002]). Many scenes are shot handheld, in low lighting conditions with a shallow depth of field. The bursts of classical music are straight out of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Trois couleurs: Bleu (1993).

Finally, Summer Palace is less than meets the eye. One wonders what a silly girl who blows her chances for happiness has to do with the recent history that serves as a backdrop for the main action. For better or for worse, the film suggests a Chinese Jules et Jim (1962).

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