Summer Palace with Director Lou Ye

Cannes Film Fest 2007–This ravishingly handsome Chinese film played in competition at the Cannes Film Fest and is now being released in the U.S. by Palm Pictures.

What was your inspiration for this film

Ever since I finished college in 1989, I'd been thinking about writing a love story. I also had an image of the Summer Palace in Beijing in my mind. The Summer Palace is right next to the university. The starting point for the screenplay was Beijing University, the Summer Palace, and a girl named Yu Hong.

The heroine leaves hometown for Beijing University. Where is she from

Tumen, a city in the northeast. We decided on Yu Hong's origins when we were scouting locations for the film. We went to that region to find a place near the border with North Korea, where Russia, North Korea, and China meet. We felt that her geographic origins could have some influence on her character. We originally wanted to start the story in the north and progress along a north-south axis, a parallel of overall development in China.

The film was even supposed to end in Shenzhen. As it turned out, it begins in Beijing, stops briefly in Wuhan, and then continues slowly south, a progression linked to Yu Hong's story, as she heads toward more open cities, where development is happening faster.

What do you mean by more open cities

Economically speaking, of course, but generally, the south is freer than the north. Especially in the late 80s and early 90s, the further from Beijing you went, the more freedom you had.

Backgrounds of other characters are less pronounced

From the start, the Yu Hong character was pivotal to the story. We based ourselves on her diary to tell her story. Then little by little, we developed the other protagonists, those she meets and those who gravitate towards her. First, the main male character, Zhou Wei. Then Li Ti and Ruo Gu. There's also Dong Dong, Song Ping, and the others. But those characters are peripheral to Yu Hong, they're present because they come into her story, because they touch her life.

How would you define the characters

Among the students living in the dormitory, Song Ping, for example, is of the generation of the Cultural Revolution. As for Zhou Wei, he thinks of himself as very Westernized, but he doesn't necessarily understand what those western ideas and ideologies mean. He comprehends the west in a Chinese way. During the 1980s, as China was opening to the world, a lot of western ideas were misinterpreted.

Dong Dong is a seventeen-year-old girl. She's like a blank slate, completely innocent of the events. She's interested in everything and is drawn to everyone, like a little girl.

Ruo Go is also from the earlier generation. And Li Ti is in between. But Yu Hong is apart from the others, living in her own world. In fact, I knew all of those

The two main characters as romantic heroes

In the first part of the film, yes. As we follow the destiny of Yu Hong and Zhou Wei, we realize that their love is uncontrollable, that is goes beyond the events, that it can't be restrained. We cannot demand anything of love: not that it bring happiness, nor that it lead to marriage, or to a long and happy life together.

Is the heroes' romanticism unique to that time

Yes, it was a romantic time, and in 1989, young people did have a certain notion of romanticism. China was opening to the larger world after a long period of containment. Young people soaked up all kinds of new ideas all at once. It was the
beginning of a period of reform, and students had the feeling that they were freer than their predecessors had been, and that they could do anything. Now we know that it was just an illusion.

Young people look like they've been left to their own devices. The older generations are absent as if there had been a break

I didn't particularly want to underline that aspect of the young generation, but they
really were very independent. The liberal reforms enacted in China at the time transformed them. And they had to adapt to a lot of upheavals. But after having tasted freedom, they could never go back. That's their problem, and that of China as a whole. Once you've started the march toward liberty, you can no longer turn back. For example, once she leaves Tumen, Yu Hong will never return.

Why does he go to Berlin

Berlin is a lot like China, especially Beijing, in terms of the way society is organized. And Berlin is important to me personally, it's the city where I met my wife.

Parallels between the fall of Berlin Wall and opening of China

I have the feeling there are two dates in history when the whole world seemed to be working together perfectly to achieve certain things, when it beat to the pulse of chaotic events that erupted everywhere simultaneously, as if by chance: 1968 and 1989.

Young people change the world

They played a crucial role. In 1989, after the events in Tiananmen Square, I became aware of the reality of things in China. Then I learned what happened in Moscow, in Czechoslovakia, and in Berlin. The movement for freedom was gaining ground. Our understanding of our own actions also changed as things evolved. We realized that it wasn't something we could settle by breaking beer bottles and shouting insults. I actually filmed that scene.

You really lived that scene, when a student shows up after the repression and collapses crying in Zhou Wei's arms

In those circumstances, all we could do was holler and break bottles, no more. We were powerless. I had an experience similar to that one.

We see students leaving for military service after the events in Tiananmen Square. Was that an easy way of restoring order

The goal of that military training was to establish a closer relationship between students and soldiers, to encourage reciprocal comprehension, because during the June 4 events, they were the main adversaries. They learned to respect each other. The students ended up seeing that the soldiers were okay. They showed a lot of respect for each other. That's how things happened in reality. But I agree, it was also useful in restoring order.

After June 1989, there's a change of tone that marks a break. Is there a before and an after in the way you filmed

There had to be. It was impossible to avoid that break simply to maintain the cohesion of the story. One of the challenges in the narrative is that the climax of the story is actually in the middle of the film and not at the end. But it wasn't possible for the story to end there. That moment had to be in the middle of the film.

Yu Hong's life, its progression emotionally and professionally, did you also want to show the evolution of life in all big cities in China

Maybe, but what was most important to me was to show the evolution of Yu Hong's character. If she had died during the events, that would have been simpler. But most of the students weren't killed, so the story had to continue. That's something I thought a lot about. In the film, we didn't show a single death during the events. Death came later. That's what I wanted to get across.

End of hope

It's possible. Death isn't caused by any one event. What I wanted to say is that personal feelings are more complicated. Exterior chaos is more easily resolved. Emotional torment is hard to resolve because it requires time.

The characters met up again too soon

Yes, I agree. I would have needed a film at least three and a half hours long!

Your work is urban in contrast to work of filmmakers of the fifth generation

I don't have much experience of life in the country. The fifth generation filmmakers almost all do because of the Cultural Revolution.

Did the lead actors know there would be so many sex scenes

I told them during our first meeting. I needed them all to agree.

15 years ago, even onscreen kiss was problematic. Has that taboo been overcome now

In my opinion, it is in the nature of this work not to copy what was done fifteen years ago.

Is it easier to tell a story of contemporary China

It's more complicated, because reality is too close. There are lots of problems to resolve, and that takes a lot of time. SUMMER PALACE doesn't really reflect today's China, but rather the China of ten years ago.

Chinese cinema today

In its current condition, we still have a lot of problems. First and foremost, Chinese cinema still isn't free, either in terms of creativity, management, or regulations. If you can't express your opinions freely, you can't accurately judge
the value of other people's words. We need to be able to express what we really think before we can judge the form or soundness of another expression.