Lou Ye's "Summer Palace" caused quite a stir in 2006, when, after playing at the Cannes Film Festival without first being cleared by the Chinese film board, it was censored by that nation's government and its makers were banned from making another film for five years. This is not the first time Lou has dealt with such things, having had two previous films censored, one of which, "Suzhou River," also caused the director to suffer another censure.
It's tough to tell if Lou enjoys this sort of notoriety, or if he is making a reluctant artistic statement, or both, or neither. It's obvious he knows what he's doing, and that he knows that handling certain subjects will certainly put him in a tough spot with China's censors.
For "Summer Palace," Lou (who co-wrote the screenplay with Mei Feng and Yingli Ma) juggles sex and politics, both of which were certain to land him in hot water. The sex scenes are frequent and unflinching; while not graphic per se (Lou uses darkened sets for artistic effect, aiming for scenes that are more emotional that titillating), the film certainly isn't shy about its subject matter. For politics, we get a backstage view of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, a memory the Chinese government has worked hard to soften over the years. While the official reason for the movie's censored status involves Lou's failure to follow protocol in dealing with the film board and some nonsense about film stock quality not being up to snuff, it's easy to conclude that the Tiananmen scenes, as well as the political dialogue that leads up to them, didn't sit well with authorities.
A melodrama involving a college girl's coming of age at such a key time in modern Chinese history would certainly make for an exceptional story. Sadly, what Lou presents is too much soap opera and characters too bland to ever truly want to follow for 135 long, long minutes.
Yu Hong (newcomer Hao Lei) is a teen dissatisfied with life in her border village and a sexual relationship with a boyfriend who doesn't exactly wow her. When she's accepted to Peking University, she finds an escape from these doldrums, with lively friends and interesting conversation. At least, that is, until she hooks up with the dark-and-handsome brooder Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong); the two begin a tumultuous affair filled with hot sex and loud arguments.
It's difficult to get involved with the inner workings of this couple and their many friends, all of whom are plenty self-absorbed. Granted, that's what college life is, and Lou, who handles his cast and camera both with great skill, does a fine job painting a realistic portrait of dorm life and the bridge between teen life and adulthood. Still, it's only moderately watchable, presented at a sluggish pace. It becomes clear that if something doesn't start happening, this whinefest will become unbearable.
Fortunately, that's right about the time the film edges closer to the summer of 1989. With his characters now given something vital to fill their days, Lou discovers a new energy. The early moments of the first protests are vibrant, brimming with a you-are-there sensibility that informs the audience that for most college kids involved, the protests were one-third political and two-thirds social. (Lou does a fine job of recreating the scene, but there comes a point where the filmmaker must have realized he couldn't re-stage the entire event, and he relies on stock footage to finish the visuals for him.)
Returning to campus, the story gets bogged down in more soap opera, only to pick up again as the timeline approaches June 4. Here is what should have been the climax of the picture, a stirring display of chaos, both large scale and personal, followed by a bitter aftermath, with disillusionment setting in, lovers falling apart, and so on.
Yet Lou wants to keep the movie going, and for another full hour. From here on, "Summer Palace" becomes a bit of a mess, tripping over itself in trying to find an ambitious reach. The remainder of the film stretches from 1989 to 2001, checking in on its characters as they grow older, grow apart, and reunite, all while straining to include more key historical moments (such as the 1997 Hong Kong handover) and awkward sidetracks (Yu Hong has an affair with a married man) that don't quite belong. Here, Lou tries to give the romance between Yu Hong and Zhou Wei an epic air of tragic love, but by this point, we're too tired to care. "Summer Palace" is a movie that falls apart just when it was starting to pull itself together.
A final thought: I sure hope you enjoy the film's piano love theme, because you're going to hear it twelve hundred times in a row. Sheesh.
Video & Audio
The film's anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer is merely adequate, no doubt a problem with the source material, with its soft, muted colors and minor grain. The big issue is in the black levels; this is a movie shot with low light for intentionally murky scenes, and the transfer here seems to overplay that concept, making most scenes murkier than they should be.
The Mandarin soundtrack is served up in both Dolby 5.1 and 2.0. Both are solid mixes, with the surround track offering a nice, clear sound. Removable English subtitles are included.
"The Making of Summer Palace" (36:42) mixes interesting on-set behind-the-scenes footage with lengthy interviews from the filmmakers. Most notable is the clip in which Lou compares the post-Tiananmen relationship between government and students with a lover's spat - an analogy that suggests the entire movie, especially the last hour, is intended as a metaphor for China itself.
"Summer Palace and Chinese Censorship" (5:48) allows the filmmakers to share their experiences with the film board, and to tell their side of the aftermath of the censure. While short, it's very captivating stuff. (Note: Both features are in Mandarin with optional English subtitles.)
The film's American trailer and a gallery of previews for other Palm releases round out the set. A PSA for One.org plays as the disc loads.
There's just enough interesting storytelling in the middle of this overlong work that foreign film enthusiasts should Rent It, but be prepared to tune out once Yu Hong leaves college.