Sunday, May 11, 2008

Review – Summer Palace

May 11, 2008

Summer Palace – 2006, China

It is a minor miracle that Summer Palace can be seen at all. The film has been banned in China, and its director and producer will not be allowed to make another film for at least three more years. The film survives at all because it was taken clandestinely out of China and screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. The Chinese government appears to have two problems with the film itself. The first is its setting, for the film begins just before the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The second is its sexual content, and as we've seen with other films, such as Lust, Caution, for the Chinese censors, content is more significant than context.

The film revolves around a young woman named Yu Hong, who is from Tumen, a small town on the Chinese-North Korean border. In Tumen, Yu Hong spends her days either at school or at her family's store. Her life changes completely when she is accepted to Beijing University. The news seems to empower her. In a way, she sheds her inhibitions, perhaps emboldened by the knowledge that she is going somewhere important, that her admittance brings with it a degree of respect for her and her family. One night on a cold isolated field, she and her boyfriend make love, possibly for the first time. The experience is quick and hardly romantic. A moment later, an eerie silence overcomes them both. After getting dressed, they embrace in complete silence. It is an embrace and a silence that seem to express fears that neither of them can bring themselves to say out loud. Is this the end of us?

To say that Beijing University is unlike anything Yu Hong experienced in Tumen is an understatement. Beijing University is a land of apparent self-rule, something reminiscent of The Lord of the Flies. The restrictions placed upon its students by parents and society melt away, and students freely talk about politics and sex. Campus life also allows people to explore the later in a way that would have been impossible just months before. However, released from the shackles and protection of tradition and the watchful eyes of their parents, some students exhibit a dangerous lack of perspective, morality, and control, a combination that could have serious repercussions.

At Beijing University, Yu Hong (powerfully played by Hao Lei) makes friends with Li Ti, a pleasant, adventurous woman whose boyfriend works in Germany. Through the two of them, Yu Hong meets Zhou Wei (Guo Xiao Dong), an outgoing writer who finds a way into Yu Hong's heart. Soon the two of them begin a passionate romantic relationship. To the outside observer, it would seem that Yu Hong had it all - love, friends, compatibility. But someone who has it all does not write about how mediocre her life is, have panic attacks, or tell the one she loves that they should break up because "she can't leave him." Rather, those are the actions and sentiments of a person in trouble. Perhaps it is one of the joys of youth that when you are young, you think that you can solve any problem, that love can last forever, that you can make an impact in the world. Yu Hong is no exception. She stays with Zhou Wei, and soon she is on a truck with him heading to Tiananmen Square to protest for democracy. Soon all will go wrong.

It should be said that Summer Palace is not a film about what is commonly called liu si (June 6th). Rather, it is about the people who just happened to be coming of age as it happened. Just 13 years after the end of Mao's Cultural Revolution, change had gripped China, and the notion that it would be halted seemed ludicrous. Yet halted it was. Just where did that leave those who had so bravely believed that their dreams would be realized, that their voices would be heard, that they would band together and produce a new country? And what does one do when the sexual liberation that at first seemed amazing produces a collapse in your own morality? The second half of Summer Palace seeks to answer these questions, and the answers are not always the ones we'd like to see.

Summer Palace is not a movie with a Hollywood ending, obviously. What we hope for as viewers is that these characters find some semblance of joy in their lives, that they can put their mistakes and broken dreams behind them. As the second half reveals, it is not an easy task. (on DVD in the United States)

3 stars

*Summer Palace is in Chinese with English subtitles.

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