Summer Palace (Palm, NR)

summer-palace.jpgTrack down a copy of Summer Palace, both because it is very good, and also because you should be grateful that you can.






The first time I saw Lou Ye’s Summer Palace was as the first film of the In Competition films at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006. Despite being the first competition film I saw, I knew it would be one of my favorites of the festival. In fact, it wound up being my single favorite competition film that year, despite the fact that Babel and Pan’s Labyrinth debuted that year. Summer Palace is the sort of movie I go forit’s an Asisan drama about two college students who have a very intense (sexually and otherwise) relationship that winds up more or less destroying themselves and their lives.  So the fact that I loved it while others criticized it as being too drifty and unfocused (it’s 2 hours and 20 minutes long) didn’t come much as a surprise to me at all. Unfortunately, immediately after the film screened for the press, most of the attention the film got wasn’t for its cinematic merits, but for the fact that the Chinese censors had a conniption fit over the film screening to an international audience. You see, if you didn’t know already, the Chinese film industry operates under very strict censorship laws, and to make films legally in China you have to abide by these rules. Ye (Purple Butterfly, Suzhou River) doesn’t make his films under the radar like a lot of other great Chinese directors have been known to do (look at the oeuvre of Jia Zhangke or Li Yang for examples). The end result of the whole debacle was threefold: Ye was/is banned from making movies in China for a couple of years, nobody paid nearly as much attention to the film as they did the scandal surrounding it at the festival, and I was worried that the Chinese government might quash the film’s release in the rest of the world, at least in its original form.

So I was delighted when Summer Palace wound up screening at the 2006 St. Louis International Film Festival, and it was the same old version that I remembered. And now, luckily, Palm is releasing the film to DVD, so my worries (except for those that extend to people who live in China) were for nothing, more or less. The issues that Ye had with the Chinese government are given some time in a special feature on the disc, and, of course, lines like “Banned by the Chinese Government” and “The film that the Chinese government did not want the world to see!” are plastered all over the case, which only harkens back to the initial censorship of the film. This is, of course, a very good film, and it’s a shame that its controversy is usurping the public’s ability to judge the film on its own merits. Aside from simply being the sort of film that I’m a sucker for, lead actress Hao Lei is hypnotically good, Hua Qing’s cinematography is nice, and the way the narrative ties the relationship of two college students together with the political events of China (and the world as a whole) in the 80’s is surprisingly adept. Perhaps the tying of the sexual and political in the film makes the distracting controversy around the film all the more relevant; regardless, track down a copy of Summer Palace, both because it is very good, and also because you should be grateful that you can.

| Pete Timmermann

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