Readers of the Angry Chinese Blogger website, among other sinophilic cine-types, are well aware of the unsettling situation surrounding Lou Ye’s Summer Palace, a sprawling, deeply moving epic that spans the period from just prior to the Tiananmen Square massacre to a little before the present. The movie has basically been accused of treason by the Chinese government. Although its pro-democracy, pro-reform stance is the obvious reason it’s been targeted, some of the charges regime bubbleheads have leveled at it are just plain laughable. The best, i.e. most ridiculous, is that the director’s treachery resides in the fact that on a few occasions “Lou used an experimental soft-focus lens technique which Beijing did not believe met quality requirements for a film representing China.” Unfortunately, it’s not a laughing matter: the director and his producer have been banned from filmmaking for five years. To make matters worse, rumors are circulating about the destruction of extant prints. (The camerawork, by the way, is as mobile and dynamic as the narrative.)
The story follows country girl Yu Hong (played in what appears to be a continuous ideological swoon by the marvelous Lei Hao) as she moves to Beijing to commence her university studies. Once there, liberated by the pleasures of free thought (and sex), she is soon swept up in the maelstrom of social upheaval that defined China in the late Eighties. The supporting cast is uniformly fine and excels at creating an emotional spectrum appropriate to the wildly variegated tonalities of Summer Palace’s very realistic milieu. Regrettably, actual reality has hampered the ability of the film’s artistry to find its way into the world.
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