Summer Palace, 2006

Recalling the resigned regret of Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy (albeit less potent) and Stanley Kwan’s Everlasting Regret in its elliptical intersection of personal and (implicitly political) national history, Lou Ye’s sprawling epic, Summer Palace is an adept and thoughful, if largely perfunctory and tenuous survey of late twentieth century contemporary history from the parallel perspectives (and bafflingly, the sexual histories) of a group of close knit students – a young woman, Yu Hong (Lei Hao) who leaves her provincial hometown and devoted childhood love to embark on her university studies in Beijing, her friend and informal roommate Li Ti (Ling Hu), and a charismatic student leader named Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo) – as the euphoric seeds of youthful idealism, newfound liberation, and social protest were germinating towards the halcyon days of the spring and early summer of 1989 in what would inevitably prove an ideological collision with the government that would culminate with the Tiananmen Square massacre (a violent encounter that is presented in such a sanitized, almost surreal manner of students throwing rocks at a burning vehicle before running away, and a flank of soldiers shooting their rifles into the air). But beyond the historical superficiality inherent in Lou’s cursory treatment of contemporary history – a short-hand approach to historical re-enactment that borders on revisionism, undoubtedly fueled in part as a creative appeasement to circumvent government censorship – perhaps the key to the film’s estranged and oddly sterile portrait of the toll of profoundly traumatic history on a generation’s collective psyche may be seen through its evocation of a humorless (and consequently, less incisive) cultural analogy to Jean Eustache’s indelible film, The Mother and the Whore in its bracing, intimate portrait of the aftermath of the failed May 68 revolution, where faithlessness, despiritualization, and the disillusionment of unrealized idealism have been displaced by the oblivion of desensitizing escape, acts of self-erasure, and an inescapable sense of dislocated, perpetual exile.

© Acquarello 2007. All rights reserved.

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