Spout Mavens Disc #10: Summer Palace (2006) or Lou Ye, Lou Ye, Me Gotta Go...

Yihe Yuan [Summer Palace]
Director: Lou Ye
Chinese, 2:20, color
Cinema 4 Rating: 5

I am nothing in this world, and I am too much for this world. How shallow everyone must be to never realize how unfathomable I am. How can they not know that I am unknowable? Is that unreasonable of me? Don’t dare to ask…

I am given a DVD of Summer Palace, but I have already seen The Unbearable Lightness of Being a dozen years ago, and so I don’t see the point. I watch it anyway, and find that I am alternately this and that. Don’t ask me what “this and that” are; they could be one or the other, but each are as much a mystery to me as myself, and therefore, not only would I never understand, but you would never understand either. And now, out of both of our confused states, we will sleep with each other, and then I will cry for some unknown reason in the darkness. And you will still never understand.

Out of an oath of fealty to the art of nudity, I continue watching Summer Palace. This is an easy oath to fulfill, as there seems to be some form of sex scene every 14.2 seconds in Summer Palace. The female lead is most fetching, and that too makes the oath easy to fulfill, and also easy on the eyes. But I can never understand her need to fill her unknowable sadness with increasing amounts of confused, empty sex. And yet, she can never, outside of having empty sex every now and then, be with the man whom she claims is “standing on the same side of the world” with her.” Why? Why ask. You would never understand, she will never understand, and… Damn it! What do you want from her anyway? Can’t you see she’s sad? And naked… again…

All of this starts out before the Tiananmen Square riots, and then once they happen, we are supposed to possibly understand how irrevocably the events of that incredible summer changed the lives of these people, especially the sad, naked girl. Or not. Honestly, I didn’t get the impression that any of them really dwelled upon Tiananmen Square later at all or even at the time. They probably pretty much ran around with sparklers and made out while it was happening (hard to tell with the whirling cinematography), and since no ever talks about it in the film outside of a couple of almost parenthetical references, there is almost a genuine feeling (and mind you, I am certain this is completely off-base but I am merely stating that it is simply a feeling) that the rest of the film was made first and then the director decided that his film just needed a touch more political material, so he shoots an additional Tiananmen scene. Then people can write about how touching it is that these characters have been so changed by this earth-shattering tragedy, and how their worlds are torn apart, and how everyone in her little collegiate group spins about terribly on their respective axises, and the sad, naked girl ends up getting even more sad and even more naked.

I discover between several pauses for bathroom breaks, leg stretching and dog-walking that the problem of Summer Palace is one of constants. All of these characters essentially remain the same. Especially the sad, naked girl, around whom everyone seems to spin. It's hard to tell why, since she is clearly a nutjob from scene... well, maybe two or three, and she hardly veers from that path at all in the course of almost 2 1/2 hours of not particularly deep soul-searching and smoldering looks of frustration. Maybe it has more to do with the nakedness and less with the sadness that people seem to flock to her. Sure, she actually does get nuttier and nuttier throughout the film, at one point curling up in a ball in an empty swimming pool while her voice intones how lost and sad and slutty she is, even while pining for a love she can never fully claim because, damn it, she is just so obsessed with her own inner sadness. But she starts out at such a high level of fucked-upness, and little explanation is given why, that litle sympathy can be engendered. She is clearly one of the most self-obsessed losers in film history.

And if you can point to me the moment in the film where anything that happens at Tiananmen Square actually affects her in any way -- because she is so consumed with her own craziness, that there is no way she was probably even aware it meant anything at all -- then you must be a similarly styled headcase. Better sleep with that guy over there right now, because he could turn out to be the love of your life, and you wouldn't want to deny him the opportunity to hear you spurn for self-absorbed reasons.

Years pass in Summer Palace, and the characters grow up and they go here and there and couple up for various reasons or break apart for various reasons or travel for various reasons, and Tiananmen Square doesn't seem to mean a goddamn thing to any of it. It would be like doing a movie about a group of Colonials who hang around during the Boston Tea Party, and then go build sandcastles for the rest of the film, never once mentioning everything else going on around them. Maybe the impression director Lou Ye (or Ye Lou or whatever...) is trying to impart is the Tiananmen Square actions are so hard to fully understand, and so warped in its political dimensions and all of the various groups involved (there is an interesting moment where the students have to go perform requisite military training that I assume is supposed to be ironic, but then again, I'm not sure anything in this film is meant to be ironic. Or maybe everything is...) Five good minutes of Internet research could probably yield to me just enough information regarding the events that I would then go "Oooohh, that's what he meant..."

But after slogging through Summer Palace, I just wanted a nap. And not even with a sad, naked girl. I've dealt with enough sad-crazy in my life already. I just wanted a nap, so I could power up for a long, epic-seeming film that actually pays off somehow in the end; a film that makes one actually feel like the journey was worth it. Instead, I got a film with numerous well-composed scenes which would get me all caught up for minutes at a time before being hit with yet another sex scene, and then the sad, naked girl's endless explanations as to why she is so sad and so frequently naked. And then, instead of being pleased that a serious drama was so kind to keep my interest by throwing liberal doses of naughty, naughty sex my way (there is considerable passion in many of these scenes), I just get more frustrated because I simply cannot care for her in any fashion whatsoever. And therefore, I don't give a crap what happens to her, or any of her friends.

If the point of Summer Palace is actually "here's a group of people, and here's why you won't give a crap about them"... well, I can find that in about 90 percent of the films I run across. Luckily, in those other films, some evil force or demonic slasher does away with those people, and I can get some small amount of pleasure at seeing the herd thinned. Here, though, the film tries to convince you from the start that it is so much more, and has a lot to say about something. Gosh, that's noble and all, but the film is ruined from the start by giving us a mostly uninteresting lead character who is so obsessed with her own sadness, madness and mortality. I can get the same story by buying a pack of smokes for any girl hanging out at a Hot Topic, buying her fake goth gear, brooding about the exact same thoughts.

And so I left Summer Palace feeling extremely underwhelmed. Or did I? If it so hard to tell anymore, getting all lost in thought like this. Maybe it did its job after all, and maybe I secretly liked the film despite how pissed off it seems to have made me outwardly. Maybe this film is the film I have been looking for all my life -- oh, hold on... someone just got shot down my street... oh, that's too bad... where was I?... oh, yes -- but I am just too caught up in myself to realize that I need this film around. No, I must shun Summer Palace -- I must turn it away! I must break up with it, because I can't live without it! It just couldn't possibly work out -- I am too, too doomed to be sad and lonely...

Oh, I don't know... I guess I just wasn't meant to understand...

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