‘Summer Palace’ (2006)

I was disappointed with Summer Palace .

That’s not to say that there aren’t impressive things going on in it — it just seems that my expectations became distorted after what seemed to me an elaborate and meticulous emphasis on direction and production design to refer to European nouvelle vague films that goes entirely nowhere.

In the disk’s promotional blurb, the film is described as a first-hand account of Tianamen Square in Beijung, c. 1989. The film’s writer-director, Lou Ye apparently participated in those protests back in the day, but the film does very little to communicate exactly what those students were after — was it more ‘democracy’? More civil rights? Greater freedom of self-expression?

The film may have been forbidden to cross those thematic threshholds on account of domestic funding, but what Lou Ye starts to create is a visually compelling film that self-consciously references French and Italian cinema of the 1960 only to sputter out when it comes to the Tianamen Square elephant in the middle of the room.

Granted, Summer Palace deals with sexuality with an unexpected frankness that invoked the ire of the Central Committee, but like (forgive me) Michael Bay’s ‘Transformers’ the film’s A and B storylines have *nothing* to do with one another — there is nothing but a superficial relationship between the June 4th Incident and the romantic engagements of the protagonist; the film explores neither subject in any substantive depth.

It’s a shame, really. A film that could have told the West a lot about life in China detourns into an exposition of Yu Hong’s personal life and her sexual liberation — boyfriend, girlfriend, girlfriend, hook-up — rather than give us any concrete appreciation of the historical forces at work in China during the late ’80′s. It’s particularly disappointing that the film failed to deliver it’s central narrative because Ye’s set-up — and the degree to which she ‘quotes’ films like ‘Jules and Jim ‘ (1962) and ‘ The Bicycle Thief ‘ (1948) get entirely lost when she shifts the focus of the story to Ye’s sexual diarism.

When deliberate quotes are made to other movies, they should, IMHO, be incorporated into the plot and not just be used to demonstrate the creators’ historical knowledge.

I lost interest in the film as it shifted from the concerns of the ’60′s-cum-’80′s comparison of Europe’s 1968 and China’s Cultural Revolution to place Yu Hong and her friends as ex-pats in Berlin after 2000. The central effects of Tianamen Square failed to pay off. The sudden shift to Berlin and Yu’s ultimate repatriation sell the film short given the attention that had been spent on the music and production design of the film’s early scenes.

Then again, meybe I just need to watch the film’s bonus materials and acquaint myself better with contemporary Chinese history.

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

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