Summer Palace 頤和園 (2006)


Director: Lou Ye 婁燁

Language: Mandarin, German, Korean

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 140 minutes

4/5. Youth, sex, love and loss for the students of 1989.

Yu Hong 餘紅 (Hao Lei 郝蕾) departs the small northeastern city of Tumen to go to university in Beijing. The year is 1987 and Beijing is enjoying the fruits of China’s reform and opening. For its students, life progresses much as in campuses around the world; dormitories, classes, dances and sex. Introduced to Zhou Wei 周偉 (Guo Xiaodong 郭曉東) by her friend Li Ti 李緹 (Hu Ling 胡伶), the two quickly begin a passionate affair. The pair struggle with love and jealously, while around them the students of Beijing begin to gather in Tiananmen Square. Then everything changes. The date is June 4th, 1989.

I have returned to Summer Palace numerous times since I became interested in Chinese cinema. It has two primary attractions to Western audiences: it is “banned in China” and it is set during the democracy movement in 1989, most famous of course for the June 4th crackdown in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing. That lends Summer Palace a certain exoticism, and that was certainly the case for me as a teenager. However, director Lou Ye has no interest in pandering to what an average Western audience would want from such a film. That leads many viewers to find Summer Palace unsatisfactory, as if it is avoiding the point of the story.

I felt the same ten years ago. Tiananmen as an event takes up less than 15 minutes. There is no direct footage of violence or even discussion. It is all implied, and afterwards there is over an hour of film remaining. So, a wasted opportunity?

Over the years, I have come to love it. Its star, Hao Lei, is one of my favourite actresses—for a quick glimpse, you can watch the wonderful short by Jia Zhangke 賈樟柯 called Cry Me A River 河上的愛情. Her performance as Yu Hong is exceptional.

But the true beauty of Summer Palace lies in that hour after the events in Tiananmen. This is not a story to directly address what happened that day. For a mainland Chinese director to do that would be extremely difficult and the film would never receive a domestic release.

Instead, Summer Palace operates more like the scar films of the 1980s which addressed the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. Although those films were able to directly depict events, they did not focus on large-scale narratives, instead focusing on individual stories and situations. At its heart,  Summer Palace is a story about a few people and their attempts to carry on after 1989. Their stories are not just influenced by the events of that year, but throughout it’s clear that something has left them forever after Tiananmen. It’s just no one, not even Lou really knows what that thing is.

Lou himself was studying in Beijing at the time of the democracy protests. Chinese of that generation have had to come to terms with the reality of what they face; Tiananmen as we know it never happened in China. Some students who took part in the protests left China, but the vast majority stayed and had to make a life for themselves. In the almost 30 years since, China has changed beyond recognition in many areas, and many will have seen their lives improve. One constant, however, remains the Communist Party. The official narrative of Tiananmen as a few counter revolutionaries has not changed, and any discussion of the subject is taboo.

Lou has given a fascinating interview describing his motivations when making Summer Palace. Specifically, he felt that Tiananmen had been like a kind of love affair, with many highs and lows and passion on both sides. This may be a surprise to those unfamiliar with events, but the protests took place over a number of months with moments where it seemed there would be a different ending before the ultimately tragic result. This feeling is reflected in Summer Palace by the prevalence of brief but passionate romantic encounters.

However, another conclusion Lou reaches gave me pause for thought. He states that ultimately, he believes the end result of Tiananmen has been positive. That both sides learnt from one another and that had helped them both despite the initial tragedy. When Summer Palace was first screened, in 2006, China was—to quote Kaiser Kuo (tongue firmly in cheek) in a recent podcast—in the ‘golden age of Chinese liberalism’. Joking aside, the early 2000s were certainly a time of increased personal freedom for many Chinese. But over the past five years, that space for civil society that began to emerge after Tiananmen appears to have faded. I wonder if Lou would still feel both sides learnt from one another.

Summer Palace never did get released in China. In fact, it has been erased from Douban (China’s IMDB) entirely. It may be a long time before it returns.


note—The name Summer Palace is from the imperial gardens in Beijing, which remain a popular tourist attraction, rather than the destroyed Old Summer Palace.

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