Directed by Ye Lou
Written by Ye Lou, Feng Mei, and Ma Yingli
Starring Lei Hao and Xiaodong Guo
Now in Theaters and on DVD in Limited Release
Ye Lou’s Summer Palace chronicles the collective rise and fall of a generation of Chinese youth: it lumbers through its nearly two-and-a-half hours on the back of a young woman, Yu Hong (played by Lei Hao), from her dense, passionate college years to the bleak, depleted years of adulthood that follow.
But for Lou’s film, history and dates are crucial. Summer Palace doesn’t trace the struggles and flourishes of an unspecified Chinese generation, but what is arguably the generation. Set prominently on the Beijing University campus among the political turmoil of the late ’80s, Summer Palace moves through its first half with the weight and anticipation of Tiananmen Square always present. When the moment does arrive — students jumping into the back of trucks, bracing for protest — the depicted bloodshed is sparse, with the film focusing on the confusion and uncertainty that occurred on the periphery of the incident.
Confusion and uncertainty may, in fact, be the emotional anchor of Summer Palace, from its opening moments of adolescent passion, to its ardent, steamy college years, to the final dreary, matter-of-fact sexual encounters of postgraduate life (sex is, clearly, another thematic anchor of the film). In the film, Yu Hong moves through a seemingly unending series of relationships with actions and decisions that are reckless, confusing, and hardly build up to any definitive understanding of her character. While this portrayal of youthful indecision is hardly a stretch, it is nevertheless frustrating that, by the end of the film, we are left with nothing to hold onto (unless you count the vague melancholy and resignation of its characters).
Summer Palace is strongest when it is depicting Yu Hong’s first year in Beijing University. The bars, dances, idealism, and romance of college is almost painfully unoriginal (see: anything about the French student protests of 1968), and often feels a bit romanticized, but Lou does it well. But in the wake of Tiananmen, the characters are barraged by a formidable series of heartbreaks (abortions, suicides, a collective feeling of resignation) that hold little narrative substance. They seem more structured to produce hazy emotions than concrete examples. Of course it’s likely that after experiencing a few years of postgraduate life, the bleak second half of Lou’s film will feel more tangible, more relatable. It’s not really something to look forward to.