Director Lou Ye ("Suzhou River," "Purple Butterfly") pulls no punches as his two young lovers play out their complex, erotic love/hate relationship against a heady backdrop of political unrest.
Yu Hong (Hao Lei) leaves her village, her family and her boyfriend to study in Beijing, where she discovers a world of intense sexual and emotional experimentation, and falls madly in love with fellow student Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong). Their relationship becomes one of dangerous games as everyone around them, especially their fellow students, begin to demonstrate, demanding democracy and freedom.
"Summer Palace" represents an ambitious undertaking which blends emotions, affairs of the heart and explicit sex with the broader spectrum of history, spanning the period from the student uprising of 1989, when young people soaked up all kinds of new ideas all at once, as far as the disillusion of 2001. Lou Ye suggests it was the beginning of a period of reform, and students had the feeling they were freer than their predecessors had been and that they could virtually do everything and anything. Today, they know that such sentiments were merely an illusion.
The infectious fervor of the first half culminates in the riots in Tiananmen Square, still a taboo topic in mainland China. Thereafter, the film traces how the movement for democracy was crushed, and three of the protagonists eventually end up in Berlin, where Yu finds little consolation, drifting from liaison to liaison as she and her friends confront Western culture and mores.
Although far too long at 140 minutes, which probably cost it any jury accolades, "Summer Palace" offers much to provoke and intrigue in the ongoing struggle of China's emergence from the yoke of the past. Starring Lei Hao, Xiaodong Guo, Lingling Hu and Xianmin Zhang. Directed by Lou Ye. Written by Lou Ye, Feng Mei and Ma Yingli. Produced by Sylvain Bursztejn. No distributor set. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 140 min