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February 19, 2007

Summer Palace, 2006

summerpalace.gifRecalling 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.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 19, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Film Comment Selects


Interesting capsule. Did the film recall The Dreamers or Regular Lovers for you at all? The college section, with its focus on inward-facing students spending their time in bed while the sounds of the chaos outside drift over the soundtrack, reminded me of the Bertolucci and Garrel films, which obviously cover a specific time period in Paris but intersect, I think, with Summer Palace in their concerns with the "disillusionment of unrealized idealism," as you put it. (I.e. why tell these stories now, with this focus, if not to highlight a youth movement's weaknesses?)

I've been intrigued by Lou's other films (and confounded, too). Summer Palace gave me plenty to think about, but it still feels like an odd failure. I think it would benefit from another viewing, but for some reason I'm not eager to see it again.

Posted by: davis on Feb 19, 2007 5:20 PM | Permalink

Interesting, actually Garrel and Bertollucci didn't occur to me at all. :) I think it's because even though the chaos of the period occurs in the periphery, it still feels as though their behavior is rooted in it. Lou's treatment of it almost abstract and tangential, and where it could really have been crystallized in the lead up to Tiananmen Square, there really didn't seem to be this sense of involvement. The Mother and the Whore is like that too, their behavior is pretty disconnected from what's going on, but the knowing, tongue in cheek humor is what betrays that hurt, and except for the string of affairs as an indication of the disillusionment (a device that I think has been done to death), there's really nothing there.

I must admit, I've only seen Lou's Suzhou River and that one just really gave me the impression that he imitates other filmmakers' styles too much (that one pretty much looked like Wong kar-wai clone). Now, Summer Palace feels like Eustache's film. I agree with you about the odd failure, it's not so much that the characters are unsympathetic as much as they're almost caricature and broad stroked to be real people, despite the "where are they now?" epilogue. It just felt oddly estranged for such a seemingly intimate portrait of a generation.

Posted by: acquarello on Feb 19, 2007 10:30 PM | Permalink

I'd love to see The Mother and the Whore. One day, one day. You should check out Lou's Purple Butterfly sometime. It has a bit of Wong's precious visual treatment of the period ('30s and '40s), but I don't think it's quite so indebted as Suzhou River. It's flawed, but it's quite unique. Plus I think it's my favorite Ziyi Zhang performance. The style Lou was developing made me excited to see what he'd do next, so aside from the few interesting flashes, Summer Palace was a big letdown.

Posted by: davis on Feb 19, 2007 11:55 PM | Permalink

Oh, and I agree with you about how much -- or little -- the characters' energies are rooted in the street activities vs. those in the Garrel and Bertolucci films. In fact this discussion makes me think of Y tu mamá también, although I hadn't made the connection before. In Cuarón's film, the character's sexcapades exist almost completely independently of the political issues that Cuarón alludes to repeatedly.

But I can't tell what Lou's attitude toward the massacre is -- is it mere backdrop?

Posted by: davis on Feb 20, 2007 12:05 AM | Permalink

Ah, good point about the Cuarón film, I hadn't thought of that either. I guess the difference though is that I came to care for those characters because there was still a reason for why they behaved the way they did, and we were left to fill in way too many blanks and project too much into the gaping holes that Lou left in the film to make the characters even the slightest bit dimensional and "human".

You're right about the ambivalence of the massacre. Okay, I "get" the need for the sanitized version of the actual night, but to characterize what the students were doing to something like an impromptu summer outing, hippie love fest seems pretty irresponsible. ...And what's even more puzzling is that the government still thought that the film was treasonous!?

Posted by: acquarello on Feb 20, 2007 10:37 AM | Permalink

I don't think the film is entirely successful, but I'm baffled by your insistence that it comport to your agenda.

"Historical superficiality"? Might it be the case that the film is up to something else? That its virtues (and even its flaws) lie elsewhere? Were you expecting a documentary?

"To characterize what the students were doing to something like an impromptu summer outing, hippie love fest seems pretty irresponsible"? Huh? Why? Because you have a preconceived idea of what happened in Tiananmen in 1989--and what artists are allowed to say about it--and this doesn't fit into it?

Posted by: anon on Feb 22, 2007 5:57 PM | Permalink

Absolutely, the film could be about something else, but if that's the case, why did Lou specifically conform the narrative so that the people are in key places at key moments of history? Are we to take at face value that they just happened to be in Berlin at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that this serendipity has nothing to do whatsoever with my "agenda" that the film is trying to trace the trajectory of Tienanmen Square generation? The reality is that I and the audience wouldn't be trying to contextualize the film through our own (granted) projected ideas about the film if Lou had made a much more substantial film than what's being shown. If we're struggling to fill in the blanks, it's because there are too many holes to make any kind of a substantial patchwork work.

As for the last comment, no it's not a remark made because I have some preconceived notion about what happened in 1989, quite the opposite. But Lou is more informed than that, and the fact that he trivializes it in the way that he does is what makes his point of view seem so ambiguous. This ambiguity is what I was addressing in that remark, it's not trying to find veracity in my agenda, it's trying to figure out what his is.

Posted by: acquarello on Feb 22, 2007 7:30 PM | Permalink

Acquarello has always had an anti-superficiality bias. It infects this entire site, I say.

Posted by: davis on Feb 23, 2007 11:14 AM | Permalink

Guilty as charged! At the end of the day, I'm still very much an engineer... I like to take apart stuff and see how it all works together. If there aren't any workable innards to play with, well, then I just feel gypped.

Posted by: acquarello on Feb 23, 2007 1:34 PM | Permalink

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