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Directed by: Lou Ye
Written by: Lou Ye & Mei Feng
What kind of movie is Summer Palace (Yihe Yuan): a love story or a political film? From its opening titles’ quote on the nature of love, you’d be inclined to think the former, but ultimately its love story only serves as an allegory for its politics. While it might be an effective metaphor on paper, though, the love story is never quite credible enough to carry the symbolic weight Lou thrusts on it. Summer Palace is pitched on a scale too grand for it to stand.
Set in China during the ‘80s, the film stars Hao Lei—with a disarming smile reminiscent of Linda Cardellini’s—as a girl who leaves her provincial town and her high school sweetheart for Beijing University, where she meets the love of her life, Guo Xiaodong. In a raucous montage, Beijing is contrasted with the drabness of her life back home; well, the dorms may be drab as well, but outside their walls Hao finds colorful lights, people singing, reading poetry, playing sports, listening to music, drinking, dancing and engaging in intellectual discourse. Her misadventures in love and college life are set against a backdrop of social turmoil and political upheaval, all of which tragically culminate in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Think Paris or Chicago over two decades earlier: Lou recreates it with chaos and violence, running crowds and lit fires, but he also hangs back to keep the focus on his protagonist: more important than what’s happening, how does she feel?
Hao burns with a desire to live more intensely, and so at school she concocts an exciting life full of invented drama and invented infidelities. She starts fights and asks to be hit. (Careful what you wish for, dear.) But when things actually do get intense—too intense—Hao suffers a crisis of heart, torn between her past and her future, represented respectively by her hometown and the university; more than one girl’s conflict, however, it serves to mirror the conflict of mother China herself, between its oppressive, Communist past and the promise of democracy on the horizon.
Summer Palace’s first half is told in a fractured style of jump cuts, presenting it as the diaristic enunciations of memory. As we remember our lives in fragments—barely even episodes—so too does the film presents itself, jumpily, in quick flashes. (This is true, too, of the copious lovemaking scenes, which Lou is too confident to shy away from.) Our existence, Lou suggests, is the sum of bits and pieces of our lives, here and there doing this and that. It’s the little things that count: Lou rushes through Hao’s first sexual encounter, but his camera lingers on the post-coital gazes and embraces between partners. But in its post-Tiananmen second half, Lou drops this style, playing it straight. We are in the present, now, and the action unfolds in whole. Summer Palace, meanwhile, burns out, dragging along mournfully without its previously-maintained throbbing sense of apocalypse.
Hao chooses to return home while her smart young friends trot off to Berlin, to experience first hand what life is like post-Communism—a historical example of democracy’s triumph over totalitarianism. Summer Palace seems to turn on the relationship between Hao and Guo—that their brief college affair is built up as the squandered love of a lifetime, never to be overcome. But the romance never comes across as so blazing, and so as the film progresses and we realize they are doomed never to reconcile, just to live their lives burning with yearning for one another, it seems far less important to the audience on romantic terms than it might to Luo.
But that’s because we are meant to take their affair as a metaphor. As Guo got away from Hao, it’s as if the promise of a new future has abandoned China, leaving an empty country, or at least a people with empty lives. The revolution ends, the revolution fails and life sadly marches on, living with the memory of promise squandered. Hao, in a present day scene, asks a suitor for a light, but his lighter won’t work. “You have a lighter,” she tells him sadly, “but no light.” China and freedom seemed to have missed their one chance at marriage. You can start to see why Lou was banned from filmmaking for five years after sneaking this movie into Cannes before the censors got a look at it.
All the explicit sex couldn’t have helped his case, either.