Love and rebellion in Beijing

September 2007 -

Summer Palace, Ye Lou, China 2006

 A young Chinese woman leaves her home in the country for her studies in Beijing, where she meets the love of her life. An impossible love, not only because she is overpowered by her passion, but also because of the confusion of experimenting with sexual morale. Chinese director Ye Lou situated this story in the tumultuous era of the late 1980s, with student rebellions on Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The parallels between the personal history of these Chinese students and world history are evident: the desire for freedom, the search for a new morale, destroying taboos and even revolution. Ye Lou could have moulded these small and large histories into a beautiful story. But because the role he assigns to the historical events is too small and especially unclear, the film is ultimately primarily a love story.

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Still from 'Summer Palace'

He skilfully tells that story in a touching and moving manner, especially in the first part of the film. He takes us into the life of a Chinese student. In worn down dormitories the students – men and women strictly segregated – live in small rooms with bunk beds, a table, a small stove, and a jumble of books, pans and clothes. Sheets are hung around the bed to create at least an illusion of privacy. Ye Lou makes the claustrophobia tangible by his continual use of close-ups. Packed together like sardines, the students experience intensive and explosive friendships, loves, arguments and intrigues. Amidst all this, the lead character Yu Hong is fighting loneliness. When she learns that her lover is having an affair with her best friend and her boyfriend from back home suddenly arrives, she breaks down.

She quits her studies and leaves Beijing. And the film could have ended there. The second half is less compact and sometimes less clear. The story continues at various locations and follows a variety of characters. Between the shots, Ye Lou projects texts to explain what is happening with his leading characters and the world. This gives the viewer the feeling that he has to read the rest of the story rather than being overwhelmed by it like in the first half. The film’s quality is certainly overwhelming, but would have been more evident if the film was significantly shorter and more concise.

Summer Palace is currently being shown in film theatres in Amsterdam, Breda, The Hague, Groningen, Nijmegen and Utrecht.