Director Lou Ye’s third film, “Summer Palace,” breaks not one but two serious taboos in Chinese cinema. Not only does he include passionate sex scenes and nudity — a first in mainland Chinese cinema — he also dares to set his story of star-crossed lovers amid the democracy protests of 1989, which culminated in the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Lou has been banned from making films by the government for five years. Officially, his crime is that he premiered the film at Cannes in 2006 without government permission; realistically, the film’s content clearly had something to do with it. The irony is, of course, that by banning Lou, the Chinese government does more damage to its reputation than anything in this film.
In Lou’s case, it’s truly a shame, since with just two films he has established himself as one of Asia’s leading directors. His debut, “Suzhou River,” was a gritty, Shanghai variation on Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” His next film, “Purple Butterfly,” was an elliptical, film noir take on love and betrayal in 1930s Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. Lou’s visual sense matured in this film, creating an exquisitely melancholy mood to match his material.
“Summer Palace” continues the vibe of his first two films, exploring how love can drift into obsession, how desire kindles uncontrollable emotions, and how we can never really know another person, even if you lie in that person’s arms every night. Lou is quite a believer in the power of love. That is, love’s power to drive you insane. As one character in the film puts it, “Love is like a wound in the heart. When the wound heals, love disappears.”
“Summer Palace” follows the story of a girl from the provinces named Yu Hong (Hao Lei), who falls in love with a high-school friend, Ruo Gu (Zhang Xianmin), shortly before leaving town to study at Beijing University in 1988. Once at university, she’s caught up in the tumult of her cramped, bustling dorm, a whirlwind of change driven by philosophy, politics and sexual freedom.
The film takes us inside Yu’s head via a voiceover of her diary entries (an interior monologue that’s tres Wong Kar Wai); she declares “I want to live more and more intensely,” and that wish soon comes true when she meets her friend’s friend Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong), a guy who attracts her intellectually and physically.
The pair fall into a torrid affair, and Lou documents their lovemaking in long, languorous shots. It seems too good to be true, and Yu — who clearly has some issues — intuits this, telling Zhou, “I want us to break up,” and when he asks why, she tells him, “Because I can’t leave you.”
Was this the cue for Zhou to cheat on her? Or was he always a player? Does Yu have some self-destructive tendencies? Or is she afraid of depending on someone emotionally? Lou asks us to read between the lines, but either way, the relationship between the two gets more complicated, more confused, more painful.
Betrayals, tantrums and violence result, but still the couple can’t quite finish it. As their relationship builds to a boiling point, so do the student protests in Tiananmen Square. Yu’s old boyfriend, Ruo Gu, concerned over what might happen in the Square, comes to Beijing looking for her, with no idea she has a new lover. As Yu melts down emotionally, the streets erupt in gunfire and chaos, and panic spreads through the dorm. Lou makes no direct political statement regarding this, save one. Ruo Gu, returning from the Square, clearly freaked by what he’s seen, yells, “Bastards, f**king bastards!” No doubt the authorities realized who he was referring to.
The university is closed, and everyone goes their separate ways as the film fast-forwards over the next decade-plus. The film, perfectly paced to this point, loses momentum as the characters scatter in various directions; Zhou goes into exile in Berlin, Yu to Wuhan, where work and casual lovers bring her no happiness. Lou is obviously attempting to show how lives were thrown off track, some never to recover, by the Tiananmen crackdown, but the film seems to meander. Zhou is clearly heading toward a reunion with Yu, but whether it will be a happy one or not remains doubtful.
“Summer Palace” is a remarkable film in many ways: Hao’s performance as Yu is nothing short of astounding, perfectly capturing the sort of girl who puts so much expectation on a relationship that it collapses. She feels too intensely, and Hao shows us the blessing and curse of that condition, displaying both strength and vulnerability, euphoria and self-loathing. She can cuddle with Zhou in bed, all barriers down, her face free of any artifice, or — in a chilling moment — she can erupt with rage, daring him to strike her. This could have been all over the place, but Hao anchors it in her eyes, which show the same yearning, the same desire, all the time.
Lou’s cinematographer, Quing Hua, has a wonderful eye for composition and manages to stay close, even intimate, to the actors, but in an elegant way, never the jarring, jittery hand-held camera work that’s so common these days. Typical is a scene where Yu has sex for the first time: Lying in the grass, her boyfriend on top of her, the camera stays on her face, on what this experience means to her. Delicate shadows of ferns waver across the actors’ faces and backs in an incredibly gorgeous effect. Shot after shot in this film will leave you amazed at his ability to find beauty in the mundane.
Lou, who was a student himself in Beijing in 1989, does a great job of re-creating the energy and possibility of the period. The claustrophobic dorms with laundry hanging in the hallways, the drunken dance parties with their daring imported pop music, the simultaneous ubiquitousness of political screed posters and Sony Walkmans — all this evokes the period well. Yet one feels the political ferment is just a backdrop to the story.
Perhaps Lou is saying that the post-Tiananmen breakdown in society was reflected on a personal level, with lives and relationships remaining fractured, potential nipped in the bud. But it feels closer in spirit to Nagisa Oshima’s “In The Realm Of The Senses,” saying that when political change is impossible, people have only themselves, their bodies and their relationships. As one character in the film puts it, “What is morality? Two people together. I think that is morality.”