Summer Palace


The Chinese censors must have had a major “oh no he di’n’t!” moment as they watched Summer Palace unfold over two and a half interminable hours. Not only does writer-directer Lou Ye bust out the first-ever full-frontal nudity in a Chinese film barely 20 minutes in, not only does he show police brutality at the Tiananmen Square protests, but he insists on pounding viewers over the head with graphic sex scene after graphic sex scene—I counted at least 15, each staged in roughly the same position, with the actors making the same noises and faces. No wonder Lou was smacked with a five-year ban from making movies in China. this troubled provenance might be the most interesting thing about Summer Palace, which combines flashes of insight and scintillating cinematography—grainy, fumbling, light-blinded—with stretches of inscrutable mediocrity. The enigmatic story at the heart of the movie concerns Yu Hong (Hao Lei), a “hard” but beautiful girl from the provinces, who falls in love with heartthrobbish student Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong) at Beijing University in the midst of late-’80s political turmoil. Their turbulent romance stretches to the present—not a boring era in Chinese politics, but Lou sidesteps the details in favor of vague declarations of longing and ennui. The director is at his best portraying the dingy dorms and vivid idealism of college life; his film stalls when it meanders away from these particulars toward a sweeping but empty attempt at the epic.

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