Part of a series dealing with Chinese cinema. 电影 (diànyǐng) is the Chinese word for movie, the two characters literally meaning “electric” and “shadow.”
颐和园 (yíhéyuán, Summer Palace)
Once again I’m visiting a Chinese film not widely known in China. Multiple theories exist as to why it’s been effectively banned (I believe it’s just been refused distribution, but the filmmakers were officially chastised, receiving five-year work bans), and I’ll avoid speculation. It was screened at Cannes in 2006 without the approval of Chinese authorities, a definite no-no, but there are several other “problems” with it, as you’ll see.
This was the fourth feature film for director Lou Ye (娄烨), and he had encountered problems with the authorities on two of his earlier works (Weekend Lover 周末情人 and Suzhou River 苏州河 ).
Summer Palace is the story of a young woman named Yu Hong (余红), played by Hao Lei (郝蕾). She comes from a provincial city to a university in Beijing in the fall of 1988, leaving behind a boyfriend and her father. After an initial period of remaining solitary (even in her four-person dorm room), she meets Li Ti (李缇, played by Hu Lingling 胡伶伶), whose boyfriend is studying in Berlin and whose roommate is often not around. The two girls develop a strong bond, and after Yu Hong meets Zhou Wei (周伟 ), played by Guo Xiaodong (郭晓东), and starts dating him, Li Ti volunteers her room for them to share, and it becomes the scene of relatively explicit sex scenes.
This inclusion of full frontal nudity (both male and female) and the appearance of sexual activity is quite unusual in a film from Mainland China, but it is integral to the plot. Yu Hong provides narration from time to time, explaining her feelings, which are confused and a little odd at times. Several of the couple’s dates take them to the Summer Palace, where we see them sitting on a bench and looking at the lake.
Yu Hong makes it clear that she believes Zhou Wei is the love of her life, but nevertheless comes to the conclusion that she must break up with him – I won’t go into her twisted logic for this decision. She does so by convincing him that she has slept with her psychology tutor, which she may or may not have actually done. After the breakup, she drifts through some other boyfriends, but nothing serious.
In the meantime, the spring of 1989 has arrived, and with it massive student protests. None of the main characters are involved directly, but the chaos of marches, canceled classes, and the uncertainty of the government’s response to the situation forms a poignant backdrop to the emotional turmoil within Yu Hong.
Of course, the filmmakers weren’t able to re-enact these huge public scenes, so actual documentary footage from the time is used, and given the somewhat grainy appearance of the normal film, the combination is seamless.
At some point during all the confusion, Li Ti and Zhou Wei start having an affair.
Shortly after these events, Yu Hong decides to drop out of school and return to her home town. The friends scatter, with both Li Ti and Zhou Wei relocating to Berlin. We get a series of brief scenes during which Yu Hong has several affairs, including a married man. From her narration, it is clear that whenever she feels lonely (still pining for Zhou Wei), she finds a man to have sex with, and during the act is the only time she feels content. Various world events play out on the sidelines, including the handover of Hong Kong. We also get some scenes set in Berlin, where we see that Zhou Wei and Li Ti occasionally have sex but don’t really feel anything for each other.
The static situation ends when Li Ti suddenly jumps from the roof of a building, prompting Zhou Wei to return to China. Once there, he tracks down Yu Hong and arranges to meet her.
But when they finally meet, they hardly speak to each other, just drive around and walk on a chilly beach. In the end, they part without goodbyes.
This story of am emotionally unstable woman has some immensely appealing aspects. The first part of the film, up to when Yu Yong leaves Beijing, is really quite good. The scenes set during the Tienanmen student protests were quite moving given the knowledge of what was going on offscreen. But from there on, it just becomes fragmentary and disjointed. The inclusion of the scenes in Berlin further confuses the focus. In a film so centered on Yu Hong, even to the point of including her inner thoughts, it is jarring to suddenly be watching scenes that are completely outside her experience. The scattered second half of the film actually becomes a bit tedious as we wonder how many times this girl is going to screw up her life and those of others.
The portrait of student life in the late 80s was fascinating, showing China’s early encounters with Western music and more individual freedom. But just as those trends came to a crashing halt after June 4, 1989, so did the sense of enjoyment in the movie. At first I really enjoyed Yu Hong’s rebellious nature and sense of fun, but as the story proceeded her problems became more and more apparent, and eventually ended up being kind of tedious. Maybe this was intended as a subtle commentary on the changes in Chinese society, but if so, it’s too subtle to be sure of. And that doesn’t alter the fact that it became so uninteresting towards the end.
All in all, I would say that this is one half of a really good film edited together with one half of a not very good film. As you can tell from my description, there are several aspects of the film which might cause displeasure to the Chinese authorities, including the nudity, the inclusion of film of the student protests, and the lack of an uplifting ending. My problems with the film don’t involve any of these issues, but the lack of coherence and focus. The running time of 140 minutes would not seem excessive if the story justified it. As it is, I can’t really recommend it, though I commend Lou Ye for having the courage to make it.
It is available from Netflix.