Lou Ye’s “Summer Palace”

Buy this DVD at! The American-English description of Lou Ye’s Summer Palace is just as misleading as the one I read for “…a politically charged drama from director Lou Ye (Purple Butterfly, Suzhou River), telling the story of Chinese political upheaval through the eyes of protagonist Yu Hong (Lei Hao) who moves from her rural community to embrace life in Beijing. Spanning nearly 20 years, the film elucidates the mindset of the Chinese revolutionary youth during the 1980s and into the new millennium through its narration by Hong, who reads diary excerpts to set scenes. Though footage of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations spliced in among the dramatized imagery relegated Summer Palace to banned status by the Chinese government, the film feels tame compared to Western dramas.”

Let’s take this officious and professional quote apart:

  • Here in the rasx() context, Summer Palace does not tell “the story of Chinese political upheaval,” the film describes a structure of a fictional female character that is a compelling composite of the passionate women I have known.
  • The lead character does not “embrace life in Beijing” she enters into specific relationships with specific people that happen to be in a school that happens to be in Beijing.
  • The film does not “[elucidate] the mindset of the Chinese revolutionary youth during the 1980s”—it is an exquisite portrait of female confusion and passion that does not attempt to condemn or belittle in vengeful bitterness. In fact, the scene during a political reading on campus that deteriorates into a fight over a girl should show the viewer that world politics is secondary to the primary youthful explorations of what it means to live and “love”—this “romantic” film is a rare one that actually questions the very “love” concept.To write that, “the film feels tame compared to Western dramas” is simply a habitual, non-conscious, cross-cultural insult that implies that the Chinese film must be compared to Western film. So now that we ‘must’ stink like this, I will compare this film to The Double Life of Veronique. Both films have successful models of passionate, complete female characters that I find rare in cinema. Both films use political unrest in as a metaphorical backdrop—a phenomenon that rhymes with the internal struggles of the characters.

Promoting this film as a commemoration of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 works for customers, buying into this film with a lack concern for a human connection to the characters. But these buyers will be sorely disappointed—especially when they see the one scene of Chinese troops firing rifles into the air. Here in the rasx() context, the real reason to see this film is to experience one of the few dramas that follow the lives of confused, under-informed, idealistic young people into adulthood. There is a tendency in many films to make fun of this stage—especially when the kids are college students. Although Summer Palace is subtly playful, it is not a comedy.

Some points that distinguish this film:

  • I find that this film is packed with sex scenes. I find them tedious and tragic especially when our lead character, Yu Hong (played by Lei Hao), reveals exactly why she has sex. This is a wonderful insight into a certain kind of woman that holds sexuality as an act representing something else. When we men start to care about these indirections instead of our own erections, we often find sadness and confusion.
  • This film does not live in a universe that suggests that there is one (or even two) correct ways to be a woman. It quietly describes how a woman does not plan to have so “many” sexual partners but just ‘discovers’ her situation along with everyone else—and she is not particularly proud or ashamed of her situation. It just is what it is.
  • The most forward political statement in the film seen by me is punctuated by Yu Hong’s abortion. This takes place years after Tiananmen Square. Her succinct, direct explanation of why she had an abortion reminds me of how a sister told me years ago about how she can be broke and poor by herself—she did not need no man to help her be that…