Summer Palace (Yihe yuan) [2006] • China • Lou Ye

"Because it is only when we make love that you understand that I'm gentle."

That's all the character development I need. This is an ambitious film about the stalled maturation of an idealistic but troubled young woman flanked by the Tiananmen Square protests, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the handover of Hong Kong to mainland China. The film spans a decade and a half from 1987 to 2003 so the misery of Three Gorges Dam didn't make the cut. The direction is a little chaotic at times but it reflects the nature of the film and doesn't come off as too much of a liability. The soundtrack is impeccably chosen and the film is ultimately very sad. I was glued to this 140 minute masterpiece. Politics aside, and they are on the side, this is a remarkable film in its honest portrayal of failure, not of personal character necessarily, but of circumstance.

This is another film that got its director and producer banned for five years from making films in China. Maybe it's the full-frontal nudity or the sheer quantity of sex scenes but I don't see the need for hubbub. The film is about a woman's self-reflection on why she finds comfort in the arms of different men. We see her naked inside and out. She is afraid to love out of fear, fear of something she hasn't yet experienced, which is the scariest kind of fear.

There are a number of things wrong with the film, perhaps, but very little could be done to improve it. Great films succeed in spite of their weaknesses. I'm not a fan of off camera narration but it works for me here. It seems additional rather than necessary. There is a maturity to the woman's voice as she narrates with entries from her diary that compliments, does not seem at odds with, the can't quite grow up activities of the woman on screen. In order to get from the Berlin Wall to the Hong Kong Handover, 1989 to 1997, we're treated to narrative onscreen text to fill us in on what's happening to the characters. Ordinarily that would be a deal breaker for me, in theory at least, but again, it works. Finally, as if this were a real story about real people, after the final denouement occurs we're given updates on what happened or didn't happen to the principle characters. Frankly, as gut-wrenchingly sad but true as the final scene is I wish it would have just faded to black. But I think it's a tribute to the strength of the characters that I found myself intrigued by the postscript.

Having said that, one could argue from a strictly script perspective that a little more fleshing out of character was in order ... and I don't mean full-frontal. But I would argue against a need to dish out explanations for why people act inexplicably. I think it comes down to this: if you've ever known passionate, poetic, misguided imperfect people, you know these people right away. They're part beautiful and part brutal, there's no talking them out of it. It's part of their charm. This film doesn't set out to explain, diagnose, or change its characters. It just wants to show them to us in all their painful glory; and I think it does a very good job of it. Then again, maybe it's just a case of been there, done that.



  1. Wow, Mr. Sitenoise, uve really gone high tech. How long have u been here?

    Great review.

    And, no, I havent seen this film, but Ill try to look for it as well as all the others uve recommended :)

  2. Cj, it feels almost illicit meeting you here.:)

    According to my archives my one year anniversary ought to be about now. Thanks for stopping by. I think you'd like this movie. Come by again, have a look around. I just vacuumed.

  3. Happy anniversary, Sitenoise.

    As I listened to you talk about this woman, I kept thinking you were talking about me. So of course I want to see this one. Sounds like I might learn something about myself. I am a woman who is chaotic and intense, too passionate, too brutal.

    Nice work, I want to see one of the films you've reviewed. My reason may be narcissistic, but without your direction I would not have heard of this film.

  4. I wrote a couple lines with you in mind. ;)

  5. Yea, you did just vacuum didn't you. Glad you're back at it. This amount of posting keeps you at the top of the blog feed.

    I sent you an email last night, did you get it?