Shuqi.org - Asian Cinema

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Original Title

Yihe yuan

Country

China

Year

2006

Director

Ye Lou
- Purple Butterfly (2003)
- Suzhou River (2000)
- Weekend Lover (1995)
- Wei qing shao nu (1994)

Cast

Lei Hao
- Brotherhood (2002) (TV series)

Xiaodong Guo
- An Empress and the Warriors (2008)
- Nuan (2003)

Xueyun Bai
- Live in Peace (1997)

DVD Availability

Available on DVD from YesAsia:

Link to YesAsia

Summer Palace

REVIEW

Full frontal nudity for the first time in a Chinese film! The film and its director banned in China!

Got your attention - didn't I?

Powerful 6th generation Chinese director Ye Lou is back - well at least for this one film (more about that later). Since "Purple Butterfly" in 2003 and "Suzhou River" in 2000 I've been looking forward to seeing a new film by him.

The year is 1989. Yu Hong (Hao Lei) is a young woman from a small town going to Beijing to study at the university. Soon she is caught up in the excitement of university life in a big city. She has an affair with another student, Wang Bo (Xueyun Bai) and falls in love with him. Becoming afraid of her own deep feelings, she tries to end the relationship with Wang Bo. The student uprising and the violence of Tiananmen Square put an end to their relationship. Wang Bo leaves for Berlin (where the wall is coming down) and Yu Hong leaves Beijing for a smaller city. Years later they meet again - do they still love each other, will they have a life together?

Hao Lei as Yu Hong is the center of "Summer Palace". Her beauty, vivacity and sexuality carries the film and keeps you interested in the story.

Yu Hong is a curious and free spirited young girl - she embraces life. She explores her sexuality (for a Chinese film there are a lot of sex scenes with both the aforementioned full frontal nudity and beautiful breasts (just mentioning it to make sure you are still reading this J)) and her coming of age is what director Ye Lou uses for his real story.

China is rapidly changing. Going from a basically rural society to a modern industrial and post industrial one. In the late 1980es the students found freedom of thought, sexual freedom and hope for a free society. Tiananmen Square put a stop to that - for a while at least.

By showing us the lives of students in the 1980es, Ye Lou tells us about the hopes of the younger generations in China. Personally I do not think he gets too political, but apparently the Film Bureau in Beijing thought so. Not only was "Summer Palace" banned in China - Ye Lou was banned from making films for five years.

Summer Palace was chosen for the main competition in Cannes in 2006, but was withdrawn by the producers because the censors in China did not approve it. However, in 2007 the film won the Golden Durian at the Barcelona Asian Film Festival - so at least it got some well-deserved recognition.

I liked Summer Palace, but I did not find it without flaws. The biggest problem is expressed by the director himself in an interview published on the film's website:

"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."

That may very well be true, but the second half of the film is not nearly as intense and interesting as the first half. As the focus in the second half shifts partly away from Hao Lei, we quickly see how much of our interest was due to her performance.

It is a long film (140 minutes) and I think it could have been possible to shorten the second half of the film without losing the points the director wanted to get across to the audience.

I also think that a western and a Chinese audience will view the film very differently.

In my opinion the western audience will probably see the film as a love story with spicy sex scenes and a political undertone. Some will also find it interesting to see a Chinese film being so open with both sexual and political issues.

For a Chinese audience the film would probably mean a lot more. China is changing so rapidly that it is important to reflect on recent history in order to get a better understanding of where the country may be heading. Young people today would be able to see, what was important to the young people of the eighties - and how the government handled the situation. I can understand that the Chinese government is not interested in that aspect.

But that is a shortsighted opinion. If China wants to continue its phenomenal economic growth they cannot keep on withholding information - even if that information is not beneficial to the government.

Hopefully "Summer Palace" will also be released in China in the not too distant future. Until then we should thank director Ye Lou for making a powerful film and hoping that he will be allowed to make films again in the near future.

Despite its flaws "Summer Palace" is definitely worth your time.

Uffe Stegmann
March 24, 2008