Summer Palace

Summer Palace


Reviewed by: Sarah Artt

A sublime coming of age drama from the director of Suzhou River and Purple Butterfly. Yu Hong (Cui) leaves her rural village to attend Beijing University in 1987. Touched by the political fallout of the Tianamen Square massacre two years later, the latter half of the story follows Yu Hong and her friends as they come to terms with adulthood. Brimming with sensuality, this film will resonate with many viewers who experienced their own sexual and political awakening at university.

After leaving her village, Yu Hong spends her first months of university quietly pining for her old lover until she is befriended by an older student, Li Ti who introduce her to Zhao Wei, the boy who becomes the great love of Yu's life. Once Yu begins spending time with Li Ti, she starts to experience the delights of university life in the capital: evenings of dancing, cooking, gossip and flirting.

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Her relationship with Zhao Wei is intense and tempestuous: they arrange trysts in Li Ti's dorm room while she spends nights off campus with her boyfriend. When Zhao Wei eventually loses interest in Yu, she makes a terrific scene many will identify with their own late teenage behaviour: sulking anger followed by tearful break-up sex.

Meanwhile, as a backdrop to their passion, political unrest is stirring - while Yu and Zhao embrace, student protest chants can be heard outside on the campus grounds. This eventually culminates in the events of the Tianamen Square protests of 1989. The students gather ecstatically on flatbed trucks as they are transported into the city centre to attend the protest. While the now well-known images of that protest remain unseen in Lou's film, the after effects are readily apparent.

Li Ti, Zhao Wei and Yu Hong wander silently back to the university along empty highways, clearly shocked by the experience. The story then jumps ahead some years to show Li Ti and Zhao Wei living in Berlin and experiencing the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yu Hong remains in China but moves away from Beijing to take an office job. She shares a flat with another girl and picks up men in karaoke bars, but she is detached from everything except physical sensation. While Yu Hong's flat existence recalls the underdog novels of Jean Rhys, Li Ti becomes an artist, mixing freely with a diverse group of friends in Berlin. Zhao Wei, like Yu Hong, takes a series of short-term jobs but decides eventually to return to China to search for Yu Hong.

Lou and his star Yu Hong have a real talent for conveying the intensity of physical sensation on screen. The scenes where Yu visits an empty swimming pool are particularly stunning. The pool is one of the few places where Yu can be alone with her thoughts. Her cramped dorm room is shared with three other girls and like all dorms, even the hallways are hardly a respite from enforced socialisation. At the pool, she is free to write in her diary without fear of being seen. As Yu writes furiously of her experiences, dry leaves billow around her, giving her feelings the force of nature.

Although Lou claims his film is a love story first and foremost, the title Yihe Yuan and its translation 'Summer Palace' have an interesting political significance. The Tianamen Square protests are also known as “the political turmoil between spring and summer 1989” which lends a particular significance to the international title of Lou's film. The phrase 'Summer Palace' evokes both the magnificent Imperial Chinese structure that still exists today in Beijing and the idea of a place of freedom and happiness, the cocoon of adolescent idealism before it is tempered by experience. An exquisite film from one of the great up-and-coming Chinese directors.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2006
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Coming of age in Eighties Beijing.
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Director: Ye Lou

Writer: Ye Lou

Starring: Xueyun Bai, Lin Cui, Long Duan, Xiaodong Guo, Lei Hao, Ling Hu

Year: 2006

Runtime: 140 minutes

Country: China


EIFF 2006

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