Summer Palace (2008)

Spoiler Alert: If you want the ending of Summer Palace to be a surprise, read no further.

After watching two hours and twenty minutes of cigarette smoking in yet another Asian movie (see also my comments on the subject in my review of Drifters), I finally bestirred myself long enough to fish up the following news bites:

“Guiyang, China — Here’s some exciting medical news from the Chinese government: Smoking is great for your health. Cigarettes, according to China’s tobacco authorities, are an excellent way to prevent ulcers. They also reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease, relieve schizophrenia, boost your brain cells, speed up your thinking, improve your reactions and increase your working efficiency.”

“With annual sales of 1.8 trillion cigarettes, the Chinese monopoly is responsible for almost one-third of all cigarettes smoked on the planet today. Two-thirds of Chinese men are smokers, and surveys show that as many as 90 per cent believe their habit has little effect on their health, or is good for them. Even in China’s medical community, 60 per cent of male doctors are smokers. Few are aware of the studies forecasting that cigarettes will soon be responsible for one-third of all premature deaths among Chinese men.”

“There is no market more important to the tobacco industry and no nation posing more challenges to tobacco control than China. With 350 million smokers and 1 million tobacco-caused deaths annually, China is the biggest challenge in international tobacco control.”

Summer Palace begins with its heroine Yu Hong (Lei Huo) at home in her village. Her boyfriend doesn’t have much to say to her, but he does urge her to try his imported cigarettes. Now I know why; he’s concerned about her health.

Anyway.

As much as I admire and respect Pauline Kael’s reviews, which appeared in the New Yorker for years, nevertheless, I began to take some of them with a grain of salt as she approached the end of her career, because I had the feeling that by then she had simply seen too many movies. She began to dismiss the familiar too quickly, or so it seemed to me, and began taking an interest in the unusual instead, whether the unusual in question merited her interest or not. I was thinking about this while watching Summer Palace because the film is a staring-off-into-space-athon and I’m beginning to wonder whether I’m in the same boat as Pauline – seen too many – at least as far as this type of dialog-eschewing personal-interaction film is concerned. Have I seen too many anguished protagonists gazing moodily into the middle distance to react to the heroine Yu Hong as director Ye Lou would have me react? What is Yu Hong thinking, up there on the screen? Which way will she jump?

Why the pain? Is that the thousand-yard stare of a stunned brain I’m seeing, or a portal into her seething emotions? Can I apprehend and empathize with and finally appreciate her internal struggles or will I just shrug them off, always assuming that I can figure out what they are in the first place?

In American movies these days, the strong silent type is typically a man with limited acting skills who ends up pulling and using a gun or otherwise kicking major ass after being pushed too far. The problem with the silent stare in a movie with intellectual pretensions like Summer Palace is that as the film wears on, the protagonist can literally do or say anything and we’re obliged to take it and like it. Consistency cannot be an issue, since we can’t know for sure what the character has been thinking. The consequent action is the result of deep thought, we presume, or mental instability, or, as they say, whatnot. Or perchance the character will do nothing in the end, just continue to stare.

I watched an episode of The Wire just before watching Summer Palace.
Dense dialog, dense narrative. Corruption in a city where in the final analysis nothing is going to change. Meanwhile, in Summer Palace, one billion people undergo a decade of profound and radical change as the regime gradually opens into an authoritarian economic system. Scant dialog, scant narrative. Ironic.

And speaking of not talking to each other – during sex, Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo), Yu Hong’s main squeeze in the movie, wears earphones. Call me old-fashioned!

Non-dialog reaches new heights in a scene where the lovers are floating on a lake in a rowboat. This is one of those couples-in-a-boat-wordless-montage scenes, only this time, after stretching out interminably, the scene goes no-dialog time-lapse into the night with a full moon rising. Yu Hong will probably tell her diary that she
and Zhou Wei were talking into the night, after watching Zhou Wei rest on his oars for eight hours, smoking.

And then, back at the hotel after languishing in the boat, sex. And then, “Zhou Wei? I think we should break up.” “Why?” “Because I can’t leave you.” This is the signal to us that whenever things seem to be going well in the movie, Yu Hong will turn away and step off the curb into traffic, metaphorically speaking. An example of the viewer not knowing what is coming, not being a mind reader.

I believe that Yu Hong was still a frosh at this point. When I was a frosh, I had a couple of painful wordless dates but they didn’t end with me wearing headphones. Or not wearing them, either.

Waiting for the dialog in a film like Summer Palace is like reading a Henry James novel. He doles out the spoken words most sparingly – dialog was the crest of the wave, I think he said – but most of the time I was deep under water, longing for any sign of a set of quotation marks, on pages of solid print often missing even a paragraph break. I’m speaking of his late novels.

If director Ye Lou were making Casablanca here instead of Summer Palace, Ingrid Bergman would step into Rick’s Cafe with her husband, sit down at a table, and smoke and drink beer without speaking to Paul Henreid or anybody else, while Bogart stood at the back of the room, alternately staring at her and looking away, smoking, wordless. Their eyes would meet once. Later, at the end of the movie, after a clinch, Bogart would stare into her eyes and say “What next?” and Bergman would drag on her cigarette and look away, and he’d look away, and she’d look back but he wouldn’t, and she’d reply, “What next?” Then she’d look at him looking away some more and then one or both of them would turn and walk away. Lights up.

Lei Huo does a nice French inhale or two (or Irish waterfall, if you prefer) in the movie, while not talking, I’ll give her that. And there is a scene in a car where she and Zhou Wei drive, with lots of staring. He stares ahead. She stares ahead. Then she stares at him while he stares ahead, and that was good, her staring at him. That scene had some juice, wordless or not. Plus, they were filmed dead-on from in front of the windshield with the car vibrating from its motion, the most realistic such scene that I can remember seeing.

Director Ye Lou, a 43-year-old from Shanghai, graduated from the Beijing Film Academy as one of its “Sixth Generation” or “Urban Generation” group of directors (the Fifth Generation, growing up during the Cultural
Revolution, was more familiar with the rural than the urban), which also includes, for example, Jia Zhangke (Platform, 2000), Xiaoshuai Wang (Drifters, 2003), and Zhang Yuan (Seventeen Years, 1999). There is a definite trend in many Chinese Sixth Generation movies to skate over narrative and dialog (see, for example, The Wayward Cloud). Obviously, I need to be in the mood for this.

In Ye Lou’s case, the lack of dialog seems to grow out of his philosophy of film.

“I want Lei Huo to be the character, not pretend to be the character. If she’s just pretending, even if she’s a very competent actor, she’ll still harm the character, because the audience will just see her as a very good actor.”

Not so.

That’s why they’re called actors.

This reminds me of Olivier’s reply to Hoffman, who was using The Method in Marathon Man to get into character and asked Olivier about the technique that he used to do the same. “Dear boy,” Sir Lawrence replied. “It’s called acting.”

Because to ensure that Lei Huo will “be the character,” Ye Lou provides her with virtually no dialog – he can’t presume, you see – and, unlike in a Mike Leigh film, she doesn’t trouble herself to develop any herself. Which
leaves us to divine what’s going on in her noggin by the expression on her purposely expressionless face. Lei Huo says “the character is like me in real life. She’s going to break my heart” but this doesn’t help me, since
I don’t happen to know Lei Huo personally. She’s a force though, with her nose often a little red.

But. Having said all that. It’s true that throughout the movie, once she gets to university, Yu Hong tells us what she is thinking by reading excerpts from her diary in voice-over. However, her thoughts as verbalized do
not illuminate; they merely reiterate the non-look on her face. Viz, after meeting her one true love for the
first time and dancing with him to “Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Backseat” (neither of them speaking, needless to say):

“Had I not viewed my life in the light of the ideal, its mediocrity would have been unbearable. That’s how I saw things when we met. You came into my life. You are my most refined friend. It’s very simple. I knew the
moment I saw you that we were standing on the same side of the world. And then we talked the whole night long. For all that, there are troubling aspects to our relationship which can’t be reduced simply to pleasure or lack of it. I want to live more and more intensely. It’s clear to me, nowhere more so than in our relationship, because there are times when I’m clearly imposing my will on you. If one takes desire lightly, action will be
constricted. It was through love that I understood this. There’s no getting around it. There are only illusions. Illusions. Those lethal things.”

This load is dropped on us at one go, intercut with tracking shots of Yu Hong and Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo), her new university lover, walking and gazing but not speaking. Perhaps they talked the night away and we never saw it, but more likely all the talking is being done directly into the diary. The message: the course of love never did run smooth. I think I can say with assurance that I never dated and danced and talked the night away
with a girl who had these thoughts running through her mind.

The dictum is “Show, don’t tell.” Here we have the opposite. The silence doesn’t show and the voice-over diary reading tells constantly.

Later from the diary, we get the likes of:

“As soon as love touches you, life is knocked off balance.”

“True love can only appear at the most intense moments of anguish and suffering.”

Later one of Yu Hong’s lovers says, “You’re so simple. You’re different from other women. You’re simple and straightforward.” He obviously did not get his hands on the diary.

Of course, there are language and cultural issues here. In the absence of a gloss for the subtitles, this is where you pause the movie and turn to your spouse or significant other, if he or she happens to be from China,
to solicit some cultural and linguistic input that might help you pick up on the nuances in those diary entries and in the dialog and action in general. Because these are our fundamental hints about what is going on in the
minds of the characters and the hints are just enough but not more than enough to mute any surprise we might feel when, at the apparent height of their happiness, as they lie full-frontal (a Chinese first. Fifteen years
ago, kissing was hardly allowed), staring up at the ceiling with the camera aimed down at them, Yu Hong suggests that Xhou Wei get circumcised. Why? he asks. (Xiaodong Guo speaks as quietly throughout this movie as
anyone I can remember speaking on film without actually whispering.) Yu Hong replies, Because it would be less painful. Who told you that? he asks. My professor, she says. Why did he tell you that? Because, she says, we were making love. This puts an immediate damper on the couple’s romantic outing. Yu Hong follows an old romantic convention and walks away from happiness whenever she chances to encounter it.

Another quick scene that might benefit from a little cultural interpretation: Yu Hong is sitting in a public park next to a basketball court, waiting for her boyfriend to arrive. He’s late. She’s watching some young men play a pickup game. Her boyfriend rides up on his motorcycle, hops off, and apologizes for being late. Suddenly, an outcry. He’s parked on the court or on a part of the street serving as the court. Immediately there is a struggle and he gets a shiner and scraped cheeks. The young woman joins in the fracas. The problem is, the conflict is instantaneous and obliquely shot, so that it is impossible to tell what’s happening, exactly. The scene feels clunky and staged, which is strange considering that it follows several quiet and evocative scenes that open the movie. Surely this doesn’t mean that Ye Lou doesn’t have the chops to handle a little action, action as majorly simple as this? He obviously isn’t a fan of Hong Kong movie brawls, but I’m thinking that I’ve missed some cultural nuance in the scene that might help account for its amateur feeling.

And one more word about taciturn actors: we don’t even get diary entries from Zhou Wei. He drives away from Yu Hong at the end of the movie without a word but with, we presume, extreme regret (though his face doesn’t show it). Who knows why?

Earlier, hanging out in Berlin because that is what the director did after he got out of school, separated now from Yu Hong, his true love, Zhou Wei sits next to a young Polish woman. The two are gazing out at a Berlin
wasteland. One presumes, on the evidence of the movie so far, that they are casually intimate, perhaps lovers.

“What is Warsaw like?” Zhou Wei says.

Pause for some gazing and brow-wrinkling by the girl.

“It’s ok,” she says.

Mutual space-gazing.

“And Beijing?” she says back.

Gazing in tandem. I like it that the man from China and the woman from Poland are conversing quietly in German. Xiaodong Guo continues to speaks in a too-cool quiet voice.

“It’s ok,” he says.

I figured that that was going to be it for the scene but after another bit of gazing, she asks him if he has a girlfriend. He says that he does. We feel the painful significance of this terse reply. Where is she? the girl asks. Somber piano notes.

“Very far away,” he says in German with a Beijing accent.

“In China?”

“Perhaps.”

“Where are we right now?” the girl asks. Zhou Wei exhales cigarette smoke. She says, “In Berlin?”

What she means by this, I have no idea. The first time I watched the scene I rolled my eyes. By the fifth time I was liking it. At least they were saying something to each other, even if it didn’t make any sense.

The director wanted to make an organic movie that grew, as if alive, and that involved the actors. What are the implications of this for the movie’s story? Is “organic” code here for “no plot,” or “no narrative,” or
“juryrigged narrative arc”? The makers of Manda Bala, which I just reviewed, went on a five-year hunt for a story with limited success. Ye Lou didn’t take that long, unless you count the fact that he’s been thinking about this film since his graduation from film school in 1989. His struggle is evident, though, in the same way that Jason Kohn’s was in Manda Bala – nurturing a hope that something will crop up. A failure of ability or imagination or no failure, but simply the constrictions on storytelling imposed by the original vision. The suicide in Summer Palace (wordless), and its wordless aftermath (serious staring off), and the abortion (wordless), and Yu Hong getting hit by a car, and some of the sex, and most of the rest of the staring-off-into-space in this film could have been eliminated, to the film’s benefit, by replacing it all with a little sharp dialog. Having said that, the movie never dragged for me; the two hours and twenty minutes it ran felt like less.

“I don’t want a construction, with a clear beginning, middle, and end,” says the director. In his opinion, the story would naturally end with the events in Tiananmen Square in ’89, which occur halfway through, but he must
show the consequences of Chinese economic and political development with respect to the students during the ten years that follow. He wants his film to live and it appears that in his view, forcing it into the straightjacket of a story would kill it. “One of the challenges in the narrative is that the climax of the story is actually in the middle of the film and not at the end. But it wasn’t possible for the story to end there. That moment had to be in the middle of the film.” I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m oblivious to
metaphor in film. To the extent that the lives of the students in the decade after Tiananmen stand in for the economic and political developments in the country, the film doesn’t work for me. The director says that it’s a
melodrama, not a political statement; some commentators think that Western viewers will take the movie as a melodrama while Chinese viewers will react to the representation of China ten years ago. I got the melodrama and not so much the mood of that country in the 90s.

Regardless of my issues about dialog and narrative, I have nothing but respect for Ye Lou as a maker of movies. He made Weekend Lover in 1995 and then Suzhou River without permission, in 2002. Suzhou River won prizes and was praised as “exhibiting the most eloquent and
effortless command of the post-Wong Kar-wai pop idiom yet.” The Chinese government then put him out of business for two years. Ye Lou takes his movies seriously. After making Purple Butterfly in 2003, he did Summer Palace and was hit with another suspension by the government in 2006, for five years this time, because he entered the movie at Cannes
without permission. A sacrifice like that requires us to take second and third looks at his filmmaking philosophy. As does the praise for Summer Palace from the likes of A.O. Scott and David Denby.

“I’m just a director. I’m not a politician. I don’t want to get into boring politics in my films. Many Chinese directors practice self-censorship because of the tight controls. But I think this is fatal. Directors must be free. So I say to everyone when we are working, ‘Let’s forget censorship.’ That’s why there are always so many troubles after the film. But while I am shooting, I am very happy… In my opinion, in its current condition, we still have a lot of problems. First and foremost, Chinese cinema still isn’t free, either in terms of creativity, management, or regulations. If you can’t express your opinions freely, you can’t accurately judge the value of other people’s words. We need to be able to express what we really think before we can judge the form or soundness of another expression.” Summer Palace was withdrawn by the producers at Cannes after the Chinese government’s reaction to its release.

The movie had more film-making resources available to it than most Chinese films. Scenes were shot in six different cities, through four seasons, with rain, wind, and summer heat. (Do Asian movies do rain best? It can come down in buckets. Rashomon – now that was rain.) To make this romance about the youth of his generation, Ye Lou returned to the same dorm rooms he had lived in at university. If I returned to the dorm rooms that I lived in at Occidental and Tufts and dressed them to match the time that I was there, and then filmed moments of political, cultural, and physical awakening in them that matched my own, I expect that the results would resonate powerfully with me. Wow. But probably not with anybody else. Would this cloud my judgment around the dramatic and esthetic issues that arise while making a film? I know nothing about Beijing University and the Summer Palace next door to it, other than that the school’s interior looks a lot like a hard-used middle school I used to know in the toughest neighborhood in Detroit.

Similarly, after college the peregrinations of the students reflect the director’s own post-graduate travels. Zhou Wei hies off to Germany (Ye Lou met his wife in Berlin), Dong Dong to the U.S., the others to large cities in south China. We see the wall in Berlin coming down, Gorby, Hong Kong reverting to china. But there are two hundred cities in China with a population over one million and I can’t name three of them; the director’s
scheme of moving south city by city to indicate, metaphorically, the opening of Chinese economic policy in the 90s (it having always been easier to operate in China the farther south you went) was lost on me. Perhaps if these students had started in Detroit and headed down to St. Louis, and then Nashville, Texarkana, Santa Fe, and Venice Beach, and Italy instead of Germany, I might have registered more fully the zeitgeist presented in the movie. I was talking to a couple of young people the other day who are working in online data acquisition in Boston. They’ve been having the feeling lately, after a couple of years in private industry following a lifetime in school, of “This is it? This is what it means to finally be an adult?” Questions which anyone in this movie would understand. At university in Beijing in ’89, everything seemed possible. The world could be changed. In the second half of Summer Palace, the former students learn that this feeling was an illusion, something that Yu Hong realized much sooner.

The ’90s were a time of confusion for many twenty-somethings in China. The characters in Summer Palace spend a lot of time acting confused. I take the point. There is old China here but there is also Coca Cola in the big red bottle on the ferry, and this is the first time I recall seeing a mainland China gas station. It wasn’t self-serve. Just off the freeway. Had a mini-mart. The thing about character confusion is that, in the absence
of dialog, it can edge into boredom, aimlessness, and ennui, which can then translate into boredom for the viewer, especially if the viewer doesn’t knit. It occurred to me to wonder at one point about the difference, if any, between the boredom of childhood, the boredom of adolescence, that of young adults, of parents, of the middle-aged, of seniors, and of pet dogs. And whether the boredom engendered by a bad action flick is the same as or different than the boredom caused by an art movie with a bad case of the longeures. These are questions to pursue in a later review, when a truly boring movie comes along.

Mick LaSalle in his podcast the other day said that the key to an effective romantic sex scene (as opposed to the other types of sex scene) is to make sure that longing precedes it. This is a forte of current Chinese
filmmakers. They tell love stories, with all the difficulties so often attendant to them, and they seem to specialize in longing. Consider the movies I’ve mentioned above, or any movie by Wong Kar-Wai, or Ang Lee’s
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Brokeback Mountain. Summer Palace begins with an entry in Yu Hong’s diary:

“There is something that comes suddenly like a wind on a warm summer’s evening. It takes you off guard and leaves you without peace. It follows you like a shadow and it’s impossible to shake. I don’t know what it is, so I can only call it love.” Love blows in like a wind, and it’s an ill wind that blows no good. With fifteen minutes left in the movie, Zhou Wei learns that Yu Hong is married. The longing on his part takes a final, major step up.

You’ve got to look long and hard to find this kind of movie in the West. Romantic comedies, sexual-attraction movies, historical romances like The Age of Innocence from time to time, but modern longing and romance? Not so much. This is not to say that most of Yu Hong’s sexual activity is meant to be romantic. Instead, she says in her diary, “It’s only when we’re making love that you
realize that I’m gentle.” She teaches a number of men that she’s gentle by using this direct method. She has tried countless other ways but has chosen this special direct method as the most efficacious. I have a feeling
that the word “gentle” does not do justice to Yu Hong’s original conception, but one way or another, it’s all about her trying to be accepted as good and tender. Thinking back, I’m wondering if any of those women I knew
were just trying to show me that they were gentle. Question: Does longing for one person make sex scenes with someone else work? Yu Hong, for example, while longing for Zhou Wei, finds love with Wu Gang (at least until “material poverty can only lead to resentment”). Hmm, now that I think of it, most of the sex in the movie involves longing for someone absent.

Li Ti (the suicide) wouldn’t allow anyone to love her for fear of hurting them. “Love is like a wound in the heart. When it heals, love disappears. Or never existed.”

Ye Lou calls Summer Palace a melodrama, not a historical study. Most of its two-and-a-half hours is spent examining love, watching young men and women in love, trying to explain love.

Ye Lou: “Then love is like a leaf in the universe. if the universe were a tree, love would be a leaf on the tree. And we can glimpse at the shape of the universe by looking at just one leaf. So I can just depict the love. Once I’ve protrayed the love, I’ve portrayed the universe.”

Well, if I see an elm leaf, I can’t tell you what the trunk of the tree looks like. Does Ye Lou succeed in explaining love, or are we simply peppered with notions?

“Why was it that nothing he had said to me or done to me could prevent my heart from going out to him,” Yu Hongs says. I never spotted Zhou Wei actually saying or doing anything in particular to her, so I take the
question to actually be a statement. The director has said that love is uncontrollable, that is goes beyond events, that it can’t be restrained, that we can’t demand anything of it. We can’t expect it to bring happiness, or marriage, or a long and happy life together. He says that emotional torment takes time, a lot of time, to resolve. For Ye Hong and Zhou Wei to come back together and stay together, the director says, would have taken them another decade of longing and would have taken him another hour of screen time. Now I don’t feel so bad that they didn’t get back together.

So, a movie about love. What do I take away from it? If you’re in love and you have sex repeatedly, it doesn’t lead to boredom, as in real life, but to unhappy longing for your absent partner. Or vice versa. I hope the director has had better luck with love than his characters in Summer Place, because, in this movie, not to lower the tenor of the review, if love strikes, you’re f**ked.

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