Whenever a film depicts the lives of fictitious individuals against a noteworthy historical backdrop, the question must be raised: do the filmmakers use their characters to humanize an otherwise emotionally unfathomable event, or do they cheaply exploit it to give their film greater social, political, intellectual, or philosophical weight than it warrants? For the first half of its nearly two and a half hour running time, Ye Lou’s Summer Palace manages to deftly filter the unrest of late 1980s China through the microcosm of a teen attending Beijing University. But following a dramatization of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations (and a where-are-they-now montage that swiftly glosses over the next decade), the film struggles for the next hour to rediscover the tone and pace that made its story up to that point so resonant.Yu Hong (Lei Hao), a teenager from Tumen, serves as our protagonist and Metaphor with a capital M. Yu Hong is a thoughtful yet uncertain girl, more sure of what she doesn’t want to be than of what she does. She enters university with hopes of dashing her small town ennui, but finds instead that the uncertainties of adult life are greater than those of adolescence. The lonely and introverted Yu Hong is befriended by Li Ti (Ling Hu), a fellow student who then introduces her to Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo). At first coy toward one another, Yu Hong and Zhou Wei begin the kind of courtship that seemingly only occurs in books and movies by or about disaffected poetic types; in between having sex and saying things like, “I think we should break up, because I don’t think I could stand to lose you,” she grows restless and begins testing the waters of their relationship, pushing the boundaries of Zhou Wei’s allegiance to see how far they will bend.
And yet, she is inconsolable when they finally break. Moving on from one loveless, impulsive, illicit romance to another, Yu Hong seems intent on alienating everything and everyone for whom she cares. Hers is the kind of self destructive behavior that seems aloof on the surface but stems from a deep current of doubt. Afraid to have anything taken from her against her will, she tests everyone who enters her life — an endless string of Jobs of varying degrees of love-blind acceptance. If they can endure Yu Hong’s games, the logic follows, they will be willing and able to maintain. If, however, they do not, she can rest knowing that it was by her own choice and actions that their relationship has severed.
It is too late when Yu Hong realizes that there is more than empty consolation in the old trope that it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. As the chasm between her ideal and her actual lives grows, her affairs become more reckless, until a tragic event reminds her of what is truly important to her — and how irreparably she has sabotaged it.
If this were all, the film would be an entertaining, if somewhat heavy handed, treatise on self realization and positive actualization — a pleasant and illuminating microcosm of the country and its times. But the last hour of the film constantly teases the audience with a resolution that it doesn’t deliver. While the moral implications of the film’s non-ending are significant, they are in no way different than those drawn from the film’s midpoint, which would have made for a more logical conclusion. There simply isn’t enough going on over the next fifteen years of Yu Hong’s life to warrant an additional hour of film. Nothing that any of the characters begin after college is explored, nor is it resolved. Perhaps this is the film’s conceit: that there will always be a disparity between how we’d like things to occur and how they do, and that it’s more often than not our own fault due to blinders we don’t realize we’re wearing. But that point was made succinctly halfway through the film; everything that comes after is beating a dead horse.
This is not to say that Summer Palace is a bad film. The first half is a moving evocation of those uncertain years between childhood and adulthood, in which our illusions of life crumble around us and we are left, ill equipped and with mediocre tools, to rebuild them stronger than before. The sex scenes == of which there are many — are surprisingly tender. They do not titillate; instead, they give us insight into a side of the characters which they hide, sometimes even from themselves. With either a little trimming or a little expanding, the film would be an unqualified success. As it stands, Summer Palace is an ambitious but uneven curiosity, tedious at its worst, but fleetingly brilliant at its best.