Summer Palace

2007, Movie, NR, 140 mins

Review

SUMMER PALACE | YIHEYUAN
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Chinese director Lou Ye fourth film sets a feverish love affair between two Beijing University students against backdrop of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and its decade-long aftermath. It's a bit like a Chinese SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS.

Beijing, China, 1988. Presented with the rare opportunity to continue her education at Beijing University, Yu Hong (Lei Hao) has said goodbye to her long-time boyfriend Xiao Jun (Lin Cui) and her widowed father, and has traded life in the relatively small northeastern town of Tumen for the hustle and bustle of the Chinese capital. The dorms in Beijing are cramped and the streets are crowded, but the university is bursting with energy, ideas and youthful excitement. Sensitive and serious, Yu Hong remains brokenhearted over leaving Xiao Jun behind, but she soon becomes fast friends with fellow student Li Ti (Ling Hu). When Li Ti's boyfriend, Ruo Gu (Sianmin Zhang), returns from studying abroad in Berlin, Yu Hong meets and falls in love with his friend, Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo). From the very start, their relationship is passionately intimate and highly volatile, and as the weeks pass, it only grows more unstable; Yu Hong suspects Xiao Jun of sleeping with Li Ti, and in turn tries to make him jealous by casually mentioning previous sexual affairs and openly flirting with another student. As the democratic reform movement that has captured the imagination of China's young generation grows increasingly vocal and students from the university join the protestors assembling in Tiananmen Square, Yu Hong and Zhou Wei's relationship reaches a breaking point. The young lovers are separated during the tumult of the government's violent response, and they will spend the next fifteen years trying to find fulfillment on their own while regretting the end of their life together.

No doubt hampered by a small budget and the inaccessibility of key locations, the central event of the film -- the brutal crackdown on the democratic dissidents who filled Tiananmen Square -- lacks the power needed for it to properly serve as the fulcrum for the rest of the movie. Speaking so openly about that-which-must-never-be-mentioned is still so are in Chinese film that one only wishes Lou Ye better articulated the full shock and horror of that unforgettable day (the existing content of SUMMER PALACE, however, still managed to earn Lou Ye a five-year ban against working in China). Yet in all fairness, Lou's emphasis is on people like himself, bystanders to the historical moment who nevertheless found their lives irrevocably changed. As the post-Tiananmen story unfolds and Yu Hung goes from serious but still idealistic small-town girl to jaded and unhappy adult who loses herself in adultery and casual affairs, we also see urban China undergo its own transformation. Fast-forwarding ahead several years at a time, Lou depicts the rapidly changing face of urban China as it hurtles headlong in to a market economy -- an ironic, secondary result of the revolutionary moment that never was. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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