In Search of sex and politics in Beijing of 1980s

Summer Palace (Yihe yuan)

140 min Drama | Romance

Summer Palace is the fourth feature by writer-director Lou Ye. Lou is a less celebrated name of the new Chinese cinema – the so-called Sixth Generation – among whom Lou is by far the most adventurous and bold in his narrative style as well as his chosen subjects. Lou Ye’s films have proven controversial in their content, and often deal with issues of sexuality, gender, obsession, and politics. Since sex and politics still are two magic taboo words in the PRC, it is the quickest way for an artist to garner the eschewed but much sought-after “Banned in China” label, which, more often than not, grants a shortcut to a puff of  international excitement. The Chinese have a say for the Butterfly Effect set in motion by foreign media: Qiangnei kaihua qiangwai xiang. I have a jasmine queen in my mouth. Find out.

Summer Palace is a story of girl meets boy. The girl, Yu Hong grows up in a north-eastern city near the Korean border. Being admitted to  a prestigious university in China’s capital, the young independent heroine is determined to lead an intense, self-fulfilling life. However, at a disco party on campus she meets Zhou Lei. It didn’t take the two very long to know that they are the “one” for each other. But we should know upfront, this is not a love story. Down the line of confused fall outs sparking off heady lovemaking, peacemaking scenes that follow, the roaring Chinese eighties is rendered in stylish anarchy that is yet spunky and full of sweet promises. Chinese reforms on full throttle, in tandem with wannabe intellectuals enjoying short-term freedom of speech. Nevertheless, the golden age of Chinese democracy is yet to be brought to a tragic end by state-sponsored terror in the summer of 1989. The June 4 Massacre on Tiananmen Square marks the turning point of Chinese history. This is a story in which both sex and politics are set to rise to high flames only to become cinders. What’s left is a whole nation devoid of hope on the threshold of the age of “Made-in-China” capitalism.

The film doesn’t stop at the nadir both amorous and political, however. The second half of the film deals with familiar Chinese themes, which in turn are placed in a broader historical context. Here a  much more ambitious frame of mind is on display, and it is for this I admire Lou Ye’s work. Yet subsequently the established narrative seems to suffer from scattershot references and comments, and the story as a whole fails to hold and falls into rigmarole.

In spite of its flaws, Summer Palace remains a satisfying experience that has succeeded to capture a period of transformation. The era of old bicycles threading through the authentic streets of Peking, which, towards the end, are replaced by Volkswagen racing on 4-lane expressway, and hand-written love letters by e-mail. Longings for things lost wriggle up stealthily, told in an atmospheric language instilled in a breathless, female sense of beauty.

The film shows some shocking moments as well when civilians are taken down by armed forces. The scene of carnage has been condensed to a short mention but long-winded enough for Beijing to ban the film, imposing a censorship of five years on its maker. For five long years Lou was not allowed to work. Democracy didn’t rock on. Up until today Party autocracy stays unchallenged in the state controlled Chinese life. The only thing that enjoys genuine freedom is the blatant laissez-faire with its typically “Chinese” characteristics. Like the heroin of the story, China seems lost in the limbo without purpose.

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