Summer Palace (2006) Movie Review

(Movie Review by James D. Bass) Like any truly good relationship, the much anticipated arrival of Summer Palace to America carried with it a great deal of hope. The hype that preceded the release had been generated on the independent film circuit, and certainly promised hidden treasure from behind the Great Wall of China. But the delivery within the celluloid confines, or in this case the digital disc, was remarkably unsatisfying in both story and cinema. What could have been grandly political or passionately erotic turned into something that wasn’t even engagingly mediocre.

The touted sex and politics were merely a backdrop to a confusing story of lives that could have been lived on almost any college campus. Filmmaker Lou Ye, having been banned from making films in mainland China for 5 years due to failure of obtaining official permits before screening the film to foreign audiences, ineptly tells the story of a young girl from North Korea as she discovers that love, sex, morality, and friendship cannot be maintained without first having some sort of direction. The same can be said for filmmaking.

Yu Hong (Lei Hao) receives an invitation to attend school in Beijing, China in the late 1980’s. When she decides to leave she misguidedly offers her virginity to her boyfriend before offering the rest of her innocence to the “big city”. The story doesn’t supply enough reason or motive for many of Yu Hong’s actions, other than youth and ignorance as the first year of her college life speeds by in a flurry of unrelated scenes. Finally slowing to a more engaging pace with the addition of fellow student Li Ti (Ling Hu) the film begins it’s blatantly obvious romantic plot.

Out for a night of clubbing Yu Hong is introduced to Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong) and a passionate relationship ensues. The scenes of lovemaking are as real as could be put to film. Not in a way that is arousing or shocking as one might expect, or even anticipate… They are honest, simple, unremarkable, and almost meaningless. To say that they carry anything within the film other than a little nudity would be overstating their significance. The same could be said for the time and location of the underlying political events that somehow seem trivialized by how little the characters seem effected, or even involved. None of the major plot themes: Sex, love, violence, politics, relationships ever seem to heat up more than a spring day in contrast to the “Summer” scorcher that everything about and within the film seemed to promise.

The most significant, and lasting moments of the film develop from the tragedies that are so often prevalant in Asian Cinema. The characters engage in frivolous promiscuity that damages their relationships, and their own psyches. Couples are torn apart, reunited, and rent asunder yet again. All with the most minimal of sense and purpose. Finally diverging again after more than a decade, Zhou Wei and the battered heroine Yu Hong helplessly try to find some semblance of closure or hope. And even then the plot fades like vapor and leaves no reason for it’s passing.

There is a certain satisfaction in having watched Summer Palace because it demonstrates a great deal of common human themes. Unfortunately, with all of it’s marketing zeal this movie could never be a pinnacle, and in many ways barely acheives much more than a pimple. Rated far too steamy for viewing by young viewers that might find novelty and surprise, any seasoned veteran film-goer will only be digging sand in search of buried gems. There be no treasure here.

Ye Lou (director) / Ye Lou, Feng Mei, Ma Yingli (screenplay)
CAST: Xueyun Bai … Wang Bo
Lin Cui … Xiao Jun
Long Duan … Tang Caoshi
Xiaodong Guo … Zhou Wei
Lei Hao … Yu Hong
Ling Hu … Li Ti

Buy Summer Palace on DVD