Showing as part of the 21st Century Chinese Cinema season at the BFI Southbank (London), 'Summer Palace' is an ambitious but ultimately flawed account of the turbulent love lives of a group of Beijing students, which mirror the social, economic and political changes in China between 1987-2001. Certain elements of the film, including full frontal nudity and footage of the student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square led to the film being banned in China and also a five year ban from film making for director Lou Ye, though the official word was that the film was banned for "technical reasons". It wasn't the first time he fell foul of the Chinese authorities - his 2000 film 'Suzhou River' remains banned in China, and Lou Ye was banned from film making for two years. Fellow Sixth Generation directors, Jia Zhang Ke and Wang Xiaoshuai have managed to escape formal disapproval of their films as of yet whilst remaining equally ambivalent as Lou Ye of China's modernisation in recent decades - perhaps their approach is a bit more subtle than Lou Ye's.
'Summer Palace' begins in Tumen, a border city between China and North Korea, where Yu Hong (Lei Hao), a young student receives notification of her acceptance to study at university in Beijing. Life in Beijing offers more choices, opportunities and freedom than she has been used to - she falls in love with Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo), who begins to get involved in the student demonstrations which are developing at the time (1988-89). Somewhat immature and impatient, and perhaps unable to cope with these feelings, their relationship is turbulent and remains on-off. It's a relationship which exists beyond university and its difficulties reflect those China faced in the path it took to reach where it is today.
Lou Ye shows the student demonstrations with a combination of dramatic action and TV footage of the time. By using this footage, Lou Ye is arguably increasing the power and impact of the events - we know we are witnessing the truth rather than a recreation of what happened. What he doesn't show (and maybe we shouldn't be too surprised) is the aftermath of these events. We see the army trying to maintain order, but the massacres that followed the demonstrations are never shown, nor inferred. Even by the most understated of figures, there was a harsh crackdown on dissenters after these demonstrations, but the film doesn't even remotely reflect what took place. A shame, since Lou Ye was clearly brave enough to make a film about these events - maybe he should have gone further, though one could hardly blame him I guess given what the consequences might be for him.
After Tiananmen Square, Lou Ye shows us the rapid changes in both China and internationally - the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union for instance - Lou Ye offers documentary footage of each of these events, which also includes the return of Hong Kong to China, further evidence of the growing success of China and its emergence as a global superpower. At each global event, we dip into the personal circumstances of Yu Hong, Zhou Wei and the assorted other main characters, all of whom seem to have messy and chaotic romantic lives every time. As a group of people, they're difficult to care about or sympathise with, and that's partly where the film suffers because you start to tire of them failing to maintain relationships with each other, notably Yu Hong's self-destructive approach to romance. There's certainly things to admire here - the cinematography for instance, where a jerky camera and rapid cutting reflects the turbulence of both events and personal circumstances and Lou Ye's ambition is to be praised. However, there's enough flaws - the uneasy balance between being critical of Chinese modernisation and the need to appease the censors, as well as difficulty to engage with any of the characters to make it a bit of a mess overall, though it's certainly a brave and interesting one. 3/5