Produced by Fang Li, Nai An, Sylvain Bursztejn. Executive producers, Fang, Nai. Co-producers, Lin Fan, Helge Albers, Lou Ye. Directed by Lou Ye. Screenplay, Lou, Mei Feng, Ma Yingli. With: Hao Lei, Guo Xiaodong, Hu Ling, Zhang Xianmin. (Mandarin, German, Korean dialogue)
Toward the end of Lou Ye’s “Summer Palace,” Yu Hong (Lei Hao) reflects that her college years were the “most confused” time in her life. A lot of us might feel similarly, but Yu Hong, the beautiful and passionate heroine of this beautiful and passionate film, is something of a special case.
“Summer Palace,” which was first shown in competition at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, is remarkable for its candor about politics and sex. But the film’s ardent, unsentimental embrace of youthful idealism is likely to strike a chord with anyone who can recall — or imagine — such feelings overtaking his or her own life.
Neither the later disaffection nor the earlier ardor feels in the least bit melodramatic or overstated. And in spite of its 2-hour-20-minute length, “Summer Palace” moves with the swiftness and syncopation of a pop song. Like Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s, Mr. Lou favors breathless tracking shots and snappy jump cuts, and like Mr. Godard’s, his camera is magnetized by female beauty. But Ms. Lei, a tough and uninhibited actress, is not simply the object of the film’s gaze; Yu Hong’s resilience and vulnerability are the film’s emotional core, and its feverish rhythms follow the chaotic pattern of her desires.
In mapping the zone in which eros intersects with politics, Mr. Lou shows some affinity with Jia Zhang-ke, another frequently embattled Chinese director (whose new film, “Still Life,” also opens in New York today). “Summer Palace” can be seen as a companion piece, or even a sort of sequel, to Mr. Jia’s “Platform,” which followed a group of Chinese young people through an earlier period of cultural and social transition, from the early 1970s into the 1980s. But Mr. Lou, whose earlier films include the noirish “Souzhou River” and the moody period thriller “Purple Butterfly,” is temperamentally less of a realist than Mr. Jia.
The delirious scenes of dorm-room sex and nightclub dancing in “Summer Palace” convey more sensation than narrative or psychological meaning. And this is clearly the point. In the end Mr. Lou is not trying to reflect on the recent Chinese past so much as he is trying to communicate its texture. Perhaps inevitably, this effort leaves some loose ends and blurred impressions.
But in “Summer Palace” he nonetheless succeeds in finding a cinematic language that does more than summarize the important events of a confusing decade. He distills the inner confusion — the swirl of moods, whims and needs — that is the lived and living essence of history.