A heady combination of political discontent, tortured relationships and shattered idealism, Lou Ye’s fiercely compelling Summer Palace is one of the landmark films of China’s Sixth Generation. Banned on the mainland, with the director forbidden from making another film for five years by the Chinese government, it was widely praised at major festivals, but was slow to receive attention from audiences when compared to Lou’s earlier Suzhou River (2000), perhaps due to his slight misstep with the state-approved period thriller Purple Butterfly (2003). In the late-1980s, Yu Hong (Hao Lei), a student from the border city of Tumen, is accepted to attend Beiqing University (a fictional institution based on Peking University). She settles into her studies, but remains distant from others in her classes or dormitory until she befriends kindred spirit Li Ti (Hu Lingling) and embarks on a relationship with Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong). Sex and politics intertwine: the bond between Yu and Zhou is so intense that her possessive feelings drive him into the arms of Li Ti, forever rupturing their social circle, while frustrated students gather campus grounds, with the increasing political activity culminating in the tragic Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Yu abruptly leaves Beijing when her old boyfriend, Xiao Jun (Cui Jin), travels to the capital from Tunmen to take her home, while Li and Zhou leave the country, relocating to Berlin, where they socialise with artists and witness the fall of the Wall. Knowing that Zhou still loves Yu, a depressed Li commits suicide.
As in Suzhou River and Lou’s later Spring Fever (2009), the style of Summer Palace is very much its substance: early scenes capture the exhilaration of attending a big city university after growing up in a significantly less cultured environment, as Lou explores student life. Jump-cuts, tracking shots, and music from the burgeoning rock scene of the period convey hope for the future and the simple thrill of being away from home for the first time, with montages of social activity summarising collective experiences. Yet the central character of Yu Hong remains a detached figure, only able to express herself through sex, or by writing privately in her diary, even after finding some connection with Zhou. When noting down her thoughts at the swimming pool, Yu mentions that students have been going to Tiananmen, but does so almost as an afterthought, instead giving priority to the sexual affairs or awakenings that are occurring in the cramped spaces of her dormitory. Sex is Yu’s preferred form of protest, but as with other methods of challenging social-political norms, it becomes difficult to maintain the euphoric peak, and Yu’s relationship with Zhou implodes almost as suddenly as it was ignited. Lou also illustrates the inevitable come-down from the rush of rebellion when Yu and her friends run down a street late at night after a rally, initially in celebratory mood, gradually slowing down as they realise that political freedom is still far away. It’s a silent acceptance that signals the onset of disillusionment.
Although much discussion of Summer Palace has revolved around the erotically-charged first half, with sexual experimentation, student politics, and the build-up to Tiananmen constituting a volatile atmosphere, it is the sustained aftershock of its second half which provides the film with its haunting quality. As soon as they finish their studies, or drop-out of education, Yu, Zhou, and Li drift around in a post-traumatic haze, struggling to make sense of the sudden end of the pro-democracy movement, slipping into individual states of emotional isolation, or even self-imposed exile. World-changing events rush by, such as the end of the Cold War and the 1997 Hong Kong handover, with psychologically wounded individuals adrift in time as China rewrites recent history in order to move on. Yu and Zhou remain restless, yearning for one another, if only because life was more promising when they were together. An inability to settle down defines Yu as she moves to Shenzhen, then to Wuhan, having affairs with various men before marrying in Chongqing and ending up in the beach resort of Beidaihe where she withdraws from society. Zhou returns to China and eventually reconnects with Yu after ten years, but their reunion is anti-climactic. The parting shot – a mutual, unspoken admittance that there is no longer any point in being together – is as devastating as any of the wider political turmoil that has preceded it. A passionate portrait of a ‘lost generation’, Summer Palace is a provocative masterpiece that should leave the genuinely-invested viewer similarly speechless.