With Summer Palace, Lou Ye speaks more plainly in his own voice, tired at last of affecting Wong Kar-wai’s florid style of filmmaking, though he is still treading the Wongian terrain of lovelorn melodrama. Very similar to his Purple Butterfly, another story of beautiful young things whose personal lives are pinched by the politics of their time, Summer Palace is also less fussy. Hao Lei stars as Yu Hong, a young college student whose philosophical thoughts on romance give as much shape to the film as Lou’s bewitching use of handheld: Lou’s style feeds off the girl’s poetic musings, his jazzy sense of montage cannily approximating the cadences of love, from stirring ardor to heartbreak, and his camera operates like a gust of wind, cradling characters as if playing Cupid, shyly pulling away to tend to the sun or moon whenever intimacy begins to grip and confound the story’s heroine.
Perplexed by the feelings stirred up by sex, associating love to pesky shadows, Yu appears deranged to her classmates when really she allows herself to feel more than most of us dare. The subject here is the liberty of feeling, a point that finds a corollary in the 1989 political protests of Tiananmen Square, into which Yu and her classmates at Beijing University are thrillingly swept, and as in The Dreamers and Regular Lovers, the film collages the politics of sex and government. But Summer Palace‘s militant students are more interesting than either Bertolucci or Garrel’s children of Marx and Coca-Cola. Social upheavals are flashpoints in their personal lives, and the power of the film derives from the dialogue, sometimes unspoken, between characters as they are dispersed across boundaries of time and geography; when the action shifts, perhaps too suddenly, to Germany, the film continues to be gripped by the idea of sex, like politics, as a movement in perpetual state of flux.
Summer Palace teems with sex scenes more meaningful than anything in Lust, Caution—meaningful because they hinge on more than just a feeling of duplicity; in them, Lou locates the soul of a young people, and they are such that a woman’s areola and the hairs on a man’s chin are liable to pop off the screen as vividly as placards of political protest. Though Lou does not flaunt a specific political message, anti-communist or otherwise, he does extol the almost innate desire of youth to revolt—a rite of passage as impactful as popping cherries. Lou’s coup is mirroring the battle cries of youth in his hectic and impassioned style, and it is the rousing tenor of this comparison that intimidated the Chinese government, which has banned Lou from making films in his homeland for five years.
The film’s characters embody a lost generation rapt by sexual and political ardor that propels them, excitingly and fearfully, toward unknown futures. In one great scene, during which a hallway inside the Beijing University explodes in political hysteria, has students fiercely jettisoning between Yu and an old flame, disrupting a reunion that appears to have been orchestrated by tempests. In another scene, Yu, a friend, and Zhou run through an empty street after a rally, giddy from the thrill of possibly authoring their political futures, only for a sense of depression to suddenly and hauntingly wash across their faces. Lou understands conviction more deeply than disillusionment but the film, warts and all, attests to the joy and fear of changing tides, with great passion and mystery—a reminder of what it means to live, love, and fight.