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Thread: Lou Ye: Summer Palace (2006)

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    Lou Ye: Summer Palace (2006)

    [color=deep pink]Lou Ye: Summer Palace (2006)[/color]

    Excitement in Beijing

    Review by Chris Knipp

    This Cannes Festival 2006 entry by the director of Suzhou River and Purple Butterfly (enjoyng very limited US theatrical release in early 2008) is more unwieldy but also bolder and more authentic than its predecessors, while still as moony and emotional and indebted to Wong Kar-wai and the French New Wave. You could compare this to Dr. Zhivago or Splendor in the Grass but despite its intense period flavor at times--the cluttered dorm rooms stay with you as do the rushing demonstrators, and the progression from bikes to nice cars and email is subtle but unmistakable--it hasn't got the structure or plot of the usual generation-spanning films; it's a hymn to love-longing posing as a contemporary historical epic. As such, it's poised for failure and doomed to be dismissed by many. But it's really great fun, a fluent, flowing, committed film with more to think about and respond to than much better-made and more tightly-edited work. And after it was shown at Cannes without official permission from home, it got Lou banned from filmmaking in China for five years.

    Full of intense realistic sex and frontal nudity that would be daring anywhere not to mention China , Summer Palace focuses on a passionate young woman who comes from the country to study at Beijing University just before the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and massacre of 1988, and though it brilliantly evokes the excitement, freedom, and experimentation of that period for what is essentially the director's own generation (Purple Butterfly dealt with the 1930's), and it gives a sense of the chaos and horror that follows--this extended, breathtaking Tiananmen-period sequence is a tour de force--the politics are peripheral to protagonist Yu Hong (Hao Lei) and the intense love addiction she shares with Zhu Wei (Guo Xiaodong). But when the repression comes, Xiao Jun (Cui Lin), Yu Hong's high school boyfriend, with whom she had intense sex at the film's outset, comes to rescue her and take her back to Tumen, in the country. The turbulent give and take of man-woman relationships is as intense at times as anything in D.H. Lawrence, but with a sexual explicitness Lawrence achieved only in Lady Chatterley.

    As played by the striking and talented Hao Lei, Yu Hong is a hell of a young woman, beautiful, alive, articulate, philosophical--her diary provides voice-over for many of the film's scenes--willful, and never satisfied with Zhou Wei, but never able till the end (fourteen years later) to let him go either. She doesn't want him, she says, but when she is with him she is happy. Any critique of the movie has to recognize that this is what it's about.

    It's quite true that (once again) rain is used excessively, but like many a filmmaker before him Lou Ye recognizes that rain, cigarettes, alcohol and intense sex by good looking people are enough to make a movie atmospheric and sexy and compulsively watchable. Jaunty Chinese pop songs and bursts of passionate classical strings are used with a broad hand, but they always work in context.

    Summer Palace is too long, and its wild abandon catches up with it in the diffuse, occasionally irrelevant sequences of the second half. When the political repression comes and Wei goes to Berlin along with Hong's best girlfriend Li Ti (Hu Lingling) and her boyfriend Ryi Gu (Zhang Ziannin), and there are details of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Perestroika that have far less urgency, the whole mood dissipates and the focus meanders. Hong, who's already caught Li Ti with the love of her life Zhou Wei, drifts or rather plunges greedily from one man to another. There's an abortion, a bike accident, adultery, a suicide, and other events, including a bittersweet reunion, but these are just blips in the long meditation on love-longing and life.

    Shown at Cinema Village in New York City January-February 2008. According to the Wikipedia entry for the film, "A Region 1 DVD will be released in the United States on March 11, 2008 by Palm Pictures."
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-19-2008 at 01:10 AM.

  2. #2
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    After watching Suzhou River and Purple Butterfly, I feel very strongly that Lou Ye's biggest influence is one Alfred Hitchcock. I fell in love so hard for Suzhou, I might have underrated the follow-up. A lesser film, no doubt, but probably better than I gave it credit when it came out. I've been unable to locate videos of Lou Ye's two features preceding Suzhou. Looking forward with great enthusiasm to the new film.

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    I'm sure you'll enjoy it. I know Hitchcock has been mentioned but I didn't see that connection in the films of his I've watched.

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    There's much to praise here. Lou Ye is a very talented filmmaker and I am convinced he will someday make another film as wonderful as Suzhou River. This one is a glorious mess but hardly worth the resulting 5-year ban you mention in your review.
    This excerpt from Acquarello's review expresses my reservations about Summer Palace quite eloquently (hope you can get over your well-founded dislike for his prose style):

    "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"

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    It's a pity you take as a model someone who writes so badly. Not a good way to go for you.

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    Bullshit. Model?! If you don't know my writing style is markedly different than Acquarello's then you're not paying attention.
    I characterized your dislike of his style as "well-founded" because I think it is and because I was hoping for some type of response to the content of the excerpt. I thought of Eustache film as I was watching Summer Palace. I read the NASA engineer's review and found he referred to The Mother and the Whore so I thought it fair to quote him rather than take credit for the comparison. Besides, he provides insights into the film that better writers failed to make.

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    I guess maybe you and Acuarello are the only people who connected Lou Ye with Jean Eustache, I don't know. But I don't agree with his evaluation of the film or its sense of the period, and if you find that "sterile" then I don't see how you can fail to disagree completely with my review as well as a lot of other people's favorable comments on Summer Palace.

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    I like Lou Ye's filmmaking, always have. It's "atmopheric" as you rightly call it, and you mention how the pop songs and bursts of classical strings somehow "work in context". "It's a hymn to love-longing" and sex-as-liberation I would add and I really like that aspect of the film. I love the scenes at the U of Beijing dormitory, by the way.
    But I didn't find the Tiananmen-period sequence "a tour de force" or "breathtaking". As a matter of fact, I don't think Lou Ye connects the personal and the political, the intimate and the public very well at all. And that's where the evocation (at least in my head) of Eustache's film (and perhaps Garrel's Regular Lovers) does damage to my appreciation of Lou Ye's film because it makes it look rather insignificant and timid in comparison.

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    The Tienanmen part is somewhat disappointing in that it does not show the actual heart of the event. But I don't think that is really damning. That section of the movie is certainly full of excitement. Not everybody is always at the heart of such an event. I know I'm not. Something about me in Berkeley in 1968 wouldn't need to show clashes with police and National Guard. I was on the periphery. Summer Palace is about personal relations, not clashes in the streets or government-sponsored massacres. But maybe the lack of such a sequence was due to technical and budget limitations as much as anything else. Anyway, the chief shortcomings of the movie are to be found elsewhere than in the absence of a full depiction of Tienanmen Square, I think.

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