Summer Palace

In his ravishingly handsome “Summer Palace,” acclaimed Sixth Generation writer-director Lou Ye (Suzhou River, Purple Butterfly) depicts a portrait of a generation–China's liberated youth–as never seen before in the West.

The movie premiered in competition at the prestigious 2006 Cannes Film Festival. For defying the Chinese authorities and taking “Summer Palace” to Cannes, director Lou Ye has been banned from filmmaking for five years. Now, two years after Cannes, the film gets limited theatrical release in the U.S. due to the entrepreneurial Palm Pictures. “Summer Palace” benefits from its thematic, visual and tonal duality: Lyrical and brutal, elusive and explicit, elegiac and erotic, “Summer Palace” relates a passionate love story and the struggle for personal liberty jeopardized by historical forces–and by fate.

Set in China, in the crucial year of 1989, “Summer Palace” centers on two young lovers, who play out their complex, erotic, truly sado-masochistic (love/hate) relationship against a volatile backdrop of political unrest.

Female protag is a beautiful country girl named Yu Hong (Hao Lei), who leaves her village, family and lover to study at Beijing University, where she discovers a world of sexual freedom. When she falls in love with fellow student Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong), their relationship, driven by passions neither one can understand nor control, becomes one of dangerous games of betrayals, recriminations, provocations. Their volatile affair is set against an even more tumultuous political context, as students begin to demonstrate, demanding freedom and democracy.

As the protests collapse, Yu and Zhou lose each other amidst the social chaos and panicked crowds. Zhou is sent to a summer military camp, and moves to Berlin upon his release, fleeing his country and memories of Yu. In Germany, social unrest is mounting too; as the Berlin wall crashes down, Zhou, weary and still haunted by Yu, returns to China and finds her living in a small town. With their uncertain future stretched out before them, they are two changed souls in a changed world. Will they survive together or alone

Unfolding as a vivid, colorful melodrama, “Summer Palace” integrates the personal intimate domain and the broader social one, telling an intricate tale of sex and politics that's replete of events, climaxes and anti-climaxes. The movie is rich enough in detail and observation as a lengthy novel, and indeed, running time is close to two and half hours, though not one segment of the constantly shifting narrative is excessive, indulgent, or superfluous.

Working at the top of his form, writer-director Lou Ye also deserves credit for paying equal attention to his two central characters, constructing a strong, independent female character, seldom seen in Chinese (or American, for that matter) movies with such frankness about her sexuality and intellect.