It’s Beijing University in the 1980s, and it is not just the students’ libidos that are getting stirred up.
Banned in China for its rampant sexuality, but probably more likely because its depiction of Tiananmen Square in 1989, “Sixth Generation” filmmaker Lou Ye has created a film that is both fascinating and fragmented narratively. Plus he has also created one of the more aggravating yet strong film heroines of recent memory.
After an impassioned fling with her boyfriend (presumably to get that pesky virginity thing out of the way) teenager Yu Hong (Hao Lei) leaves her border town and goes to the big city, as a new student at Beijing University. Despite the students being packed and stacked in dormitory rooms like sardines (each room just big enough for two bunkbeds), Beijing University in the late 1980s looks pretty much like any university, with boys and girls thundering through the hallways, passionate friendships made, gossip flung about, and students pushing their roommates out of their crowed rooms in order for a little privacy to hook up.
Yu Hong is a bit of a loner at first, her roommates notice, but soon she makes friends with exuberant Li Ti (Hu Ling, who looks like a young Michelle Yeoh), who brags of her boyfriend in Berlin, while taking reluctant Yu Hong under her arm to step out a bit. One night, while Li Ti’s boyfriend visits, they introduce Yu Hong to their handsome friend Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong). From that evening, dancing as a group at the disco, sparks fly and Yu Hong and Zhou Wei begin a passionate relationship.
The torrid university affairs, with drama, cheating, and plenty of hooking up (the film was controversial for its nudity, among other things) consume the students, but meanwhile political turmoil is brewing. It is during the film’s first half, culminating with a students’-point-of-view of the events at Tiananmen Square that Summer Palace is at its most gripping. The chaos and fear—as jovial and positive demonstrating turns frightening and violent—is depicted disturbingly well, mostly under the cover of night. The friends search for each other, and their lives are changed dramatically.
The second, weaker half of the film jumps ahead in a montage of years, culminating in 2001, after Yu Hong has jumped from man to man, never satisfied, always searching, and Zhou Wei and others have ended up in Berlin. Things morphed and changed among the friends, with relationships evolving or breaking apart. But the events of that summer are seared into all of their psyches, and most of them are haunted by the personal and political turmoil from that time of their lives. You wait for them to cross paths in life again, and be faced with reality rather than their frozen memories.
Apparently much of Summer Palace is autobiographical for director Lou Ye, as he was a university student in Beijing during the events of Tiananmen Square. Though the characters all seems to suffer from a post-Tiananmen ennui and disaffectedness in their personal lives (Yu Hong tries our sympathy after awhile), it is still worth sticking with them. Summer Palace shows how the events of that summer changed those involved, and how that crossroads in China’s politics still hasn’t really been resolved for many of that generation.