Mar 6, 2008

DVD Review: 'Summer Palace,' Not To Be Missed

There are a lot of films that claim as their heritage the '70s Hollywood classics, though too few of them manage to capture both the unresolved characters and the turbulent, unhinged relationship the characters have with the political and sociological climate of the time. There is a raw power to certain projects that is felt more from the whole rather than the individual parts: I remember watching scenes of Five Easy Pieces and later, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and never understanding the strength of either film. These are slow and thoughtful films and their power lies more in their whole than in any one individual scene (Yes, even the infamous "chicken between the knees," chicken-salad sandwich scene.), and I think that's what we have here with Summer Palace. I think this is a film that draws mighty strength from the intricately drawn characters, their interactions with each other, and society at large.

I know who I will recommend this film to, it's tailor made for a buddy who appreciates Eyes Wide Shut, and for another that loves Raise The Red Lantern, and for the one who likes The Thin Red Line, and then the one who appreciates In The Mood For Love. I name these more-recent films because I have very specific friends who have surprised themselves to find these films among their favorites and I believe this is another of those films that will leap out at them in much the same way. To all you film fans that are crazy in love with Star Wars, let me put it this way; remember that early scene in A New Hope where Luke walks outside Tatooine as the two suns set low in the sky? Well, there ya go. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you can move on -- that last little bit of info will have no bearing on your appreciation of this film.

Summer Palace has been banned in China and, I have to admit, it's easy to see why. This is a film that would receive an NC-17 in the US. How it got made, I do not know. It's a big, sprawling film that at its most basic, captures the lives of Beijing University students during the turbulent Tiananmen protests. Overtly, the film doesn't take sides; it just tells the story in a straightforward style without explaining every action or emotion. John Ford, I imagine, would have given a tip of his hat to this production. It's a surprise, honestly, that the film was ever greenlit to begin with.

Someone in the Chinese government must recognize and appreciate the talents of director Ye Lou and his co-writers Feng Mei and Ma Yingli; they have put a production together that continually surprised me. There is a subtleness to the characters and the story that is difficult to pen and even more difficult to capture on film. What is too much information, what is best not explained and what is necessary to include so the audience won't get lost as the film unspools? Here, the filmmakers hit all the right notes. There are moments where the seams of the film show, but even those add a sense of immediacy and texture to the project.

Cinematographer Qing Hua seemed to be channeling Christopher Doyle and deserves special attention. The composition, the subtle lighting, and hand-held camera shots create a classic look that is reminiscent of some of Doyle's best work. Xiaodong Guo, as Zhou Wei, is the primary male in the movie and he handles the task effortlessly. Cool, removed, a product of his environment, Zhou Wei is the consummate university student who seems to survive easily at a time when those around him struggle to comprehend.

The real star, Lei Hao, who plays the tile role of Yu Hong, is playing at a level comparable to Gena Rowlands or Faye Dunaway. Her performance is so raw that at times it's hard to watch. Her character is as torn by her relationships as she is with the political upheaval that surrounds her and she does her best to stay emotionally balanced through it all.

Having watched the film twice now, I feel I better understand the characters' actions; but at the same time, I have even more questions about their relationships. In the end I wonder how much the tragedy of their university years colored the ensuing years of personal struggle and unsettled relationships. The characters, the film, and the Chinese government's response to it are further explored in the two special features of the DVD -- "The Making Of Summer Palace" and "Summer Palace & Chinese Censorship" -- which are both worth watching for added layers to an already impressive film. [source:]

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