How instructive: Here’s another new Chinese film, also from a leading Sixth Generation director, but with the exact opposite problem as Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (see review). Whereas Jia has a natural talent for capturing his country’s landscape in transition—if not as fully its citizens this time—Lou Ye has made a memoir of Beijing college life circa 1989 with warmly embraceable characters but hardly enough political context. Almost as an afterthought, his students are on their way to Tiananmen Square when the violence erupts but, excepting one sad scene in a demoralized dorm room, the moment seems oddly devoid of rage.
Summer Palace, a lush-looking competitor at Cannes in 2006, has earned its director a five-year muzzle from his country’s authorities; its American booking is to be applauded. But the ban is probably not for political boldness so much as full-frontal nudity. (Girls and guys do go wild here.) Truth be told, Summer Palace feels more like an artier St. Elmo’s Fire than anything else. Playing its central figure, a country girl getting an education in urban life and love, Hao Lei is close to extraordinary. But last year’s quietly radical Regular Lovers, directed by Philippe Garrel as an act of May ’68 reclamation, showed us how such dramas should be properly balanced.