Two star-kissed lovers meet, part and finally are reunited against a backdrop of 14 years of contempo Chinese history in “Summer Palace,” an occasionally involving but way over-stretched tapestry that plays like a French art movie in oriental dress. Fourth feature by Mainland helmer Lou Ye (“Suzhou River,” “Purple Butterfly”) shoots for metaphysical drama but ends up saying very little beneath all the poetic voiceovers, sexual encounters and political seasoning. Beyond fests, this is good for niche business in a few Euro territories only.
Chinese-French co-prod played in competition at Cannes without prior official approval from China’s Film Bureau, which could cause short-term hassles in Lou’s local career. As well as being the first Mainland feature to show events around Tiananmen in the summer of 1989, “Palace” is also the first to feature (in one shot only) full frontal nudity by its male and female leads.
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However, there’s an unmistakable feeling throughout “Summer Palace” that Lou is deliberately pressing hot buttons to cater to Western auds. If the pic does end up being banned in China, that will only add to its prestige in some Western critical circles — despite the fact that the pic is at least half an hour too long and poorly organized on a dramatic level.
Central character in “Palace” is Yu Hong (Hao Lei), the 17-year-old daughter of a shopkeeper in the northeastern town of Tumen, near the North Korean border. As the pic opens in 1987, she’s just been accepted at Beijing U., and before she leaves for school she loses her virginity outdoors one night to her devoted b.f., Xiao.
In Beijing the following year, she pals up with a girl in her dormitory, Li Ti (Hu Ling), whose boyfriend is studying in Berlin. Yu also meets the love of her life, Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong). These early scenes and montages, sketching the youth-led euphoria of the late ’80s, as China opened up and embraced certain “freedoms,” is well captured.
In one of her many diary-like voiceovers, Yu also confesses she’s as much scared as exhilarated by the force of her love for Zhou. After one long sack session, the dialogue starts to slip into Gallic mode with exchanges like: “I want us to break up.” “Why?” “Because I can’t leave you.” Naturellement.
As winter comes and goes, anyone with basic math will realize Tiananmen is just around the corner. First shown as an exuberant student lark, and then morphing into something much more serious, the Tiananmen events of July 4 are largely shown via TV material and are not discussed in political terms. Only local rioting and turmoil in the corridors of Beijing U. — where Zhou is discovered having clandestine sex with Li — are shown.
As such, historical events are merely a background to the central relationships. That’s fair enough, but the problem is that those relationships are far from extraordinary and are hardly enriched by the events. In that respect, “Palace” doesn’t hold a candle to Zhang Jiarui’s recent “The Road,” in which a woman’s complex emotional life is umbilically linked to China’s social evolution.
Final 75 minutes of “Palace” rapidly limn the main characters’ movements (and some political events) over the next eight years. This second half needs a serious further sesh at the editing console. But given the essential lack of emotional content — beyond lovers bruised and divided by history — any cutting would simply make the picture shorter, not deeper.
Performances are OK within script’s limitations, with Hao especially good as the life-hardened provincial girl. Lensing by Hua Qing is mobile and varied, with plenty of Lou’s trademark gloomily-lit interiors. Pop-rock songs are well fitted to the several montage sequences, while Iranian composer Peyman Yazdanian contribs a rousing score for the bigger scenes.