Lou Ye’s Summer Palace is an exasperating experience, full of interesting ideas and an incendiary political backdrop but falling victim to clichés of poeticized romantic longing. Though not a new idea, conflating the political and the personal can be an interesting way to explore how people living through historically turbulent times aren’t necessarily aware that they are living through such epoch-defining moments. Of course, that’s a tough needle to thread, and Lou eventually loses it. Summer Palace follows young Yu Hong (Hao Lei) as she moves from a small town to the big city to attend college. There, she befriends Li Ti (Hu Lingling) and falls for Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong). The first half of the film charts the tumultuous ups and downs of Yu and Zhou’s relationship, as they constantly fuck, argue, fuck, break up and get back together again. They are both prone to dramatic overreactions and bold proclamations, but the emotional histrionics on display are tempered by Lou’s energetic filmmaking. While international art house directors like Jia, Hou, and Tsai were mastering ‘slow cinema’ based around mostly static master-shot photography, Lou employs a restless, probing camera, linking long tracking shots with shifting perspectives and fluctuating identifications. A typical shot might have the camera follow closely behind a character as they enter into a room, pause to observe the scene, then dolly left or right to become a kind of POV, subjective image, all before a jump cut suddenly changes the perspective. It’s sinewy, fluid filmmaking and keeps the energy from flagging throughout the film’s two hour-plus runtime.
Lou employs a restless, probing camera, linking long tracking shots with shifting perspectives and fluctuating identifications.
The student protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989 become a kind of structuring ballast, the first half of the film leading inexorably towards the event, while the second half unfolds in the aftermath of the demonstrations (along with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War). But the actual connection between this real, and huge, event in Chinese history and its relationship to this specific narrative of l’amour fou is tenuous at best, vague to the point of opaqueness. Lou wants these events to mean something, of course. He uses actual documentary footage of the Tiananmen protests, which got him censored and banned from filmmaking by the Chinese government. And he has Zhou leave China for Berlin, putting him close to the revolutionary democratic movement that was happening there at the time. While it is refreshing for a filmmaker to trust their audience to make certain broad connections between text and subtext, Lou goes too far here. There’s a lack of specificity to much of the second half of the film, as Yu has a series of unsatisfying love affairs and Zhou longs for Yu from afar. Summer Palace isn’t a bad film, but it’s vague when it should be specific. As characters, Yu and Zhou are ciphers, passive observers, and the whole second act of the film fundamentally hinges on an audience caring about their grand, doomed love affair. Much like the frequent, lengthy sex scenes, Lou indulges in repetitions and emotional doldrums that become less meaningful the more they occur, losing their intensity and instead giving way to a mere shrug. This could very well be by design, but it makes for an ultimately dissatisfying, frustrating film.
Part of Lou Ye: Every Face Is a Mask.