“Summer Palace” Sucks

A Guest Post Movie Review by Hannah in China

The “banned” 2005 Chinese movie Summer Palace (颐和园, Yíhé Yuán) directed by Lou Ye, has become popular movie among Westerners.

Every expat website that discusses this movie says, “It’s the kind of movie that really shows and expresses the real China and its people.”

This flattering talk kept me wondering what movie was like.

Was it great?

Does it tell some secret things about the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989 like the movie’s poster suggest?

I recently had an opportunity to finally watch Summer Palace, but after sitting for 140 minutes, the  question was still there—what was movie good for?

The character Yu Hong says during the movie, “My college years were the most confused time in my life.” 

However, for me, watching this movie was most confused time.

The story begins with the leading girl, Yu Hong (played by Hao Lei), having sex with her first lover at home in a North China village. Then she abruptly leaves for school at Beijing University.

We don’t know what she studies or if she is smart enough to get into “Beida,”, which is top university in China.

At school, a new girlfriend Li Ti takes her to bars and introduces her to boy named Zhou Wei, which turns into stormy relationship with constant love, sex and fighting. 

In one scene, they are having naked sex and next scene are slapping and screaming then making love again.

Never does story tell why they act like this. Their love should be deeply hurt and touched inside.

However, all I saw was their cold, wild sex with different people. There was too much unnecessary nudity, like Yu Hong having a lesbian relationship in her dorm room, which cheapened  movie.

In 1989, Tiananmen Square incident took place.

Movie poster for Summer Palace shows soldiers with guns and advertises that this story tells something about politics saying, it is “a powerful recreation of the Tiananmen events.”

However, they show few minutes of some students on campus singing songs, riding in the back of trucks and throwing bricks. That’s all.

This movie is definitely not about 1989 Tiananmen. I think director Lou Ye wanted to get commercial attention in the West by making story at the same time as 1989, an insincere marketing tactic.

Anyway, Yu Hong catches Zhou and Li in bed, so she leaves PKU without graduating.

Then she is working in some southern cities. Later, the movie say she is married, but we don’t see or know to whom. 

Meanwhile, Zhou and Li travel to Berlin together. He has job there but movie doesn’t tell what job is.

Li Ti spends her time walking naked around her apartment. Then Zhou says he wants to go back to China, so Li Ti jumps off roof in front of him and dies.

Zhou then moves to Chongqing and seems successful but we don’t know why.

Then he is driving on highway and meets Yu Hong again at gas station.

Why is she in central China?

Why is she at gas station?

We don’t know. They go to hotel and have sex, which ends the movie.

Summer Palace is a little, blue sad story.

 The director likes to show Yu Hong walking around with pouting, weepy face to get our pity or showing her having crazy sex to arouse us.

The director says it’s love story except there is no love. There’s no reason for anything that happens.  There’s nothing to hold the story together.

There is only one scene after another without explanation as if director was confused and didn’t know what to do. With more than two and half-hours of this, imagine how boring that was.

Also, director made stupid, irresponsible mistakes. He shows students in 1980’s China wearing new designer clothes, high heels and sexy lingerie—even though none of these trends had arrived in PRC yet. 

Then there are scenes at bars and nightclubs with PKU students drinking foreign liquor and listening to American pop music, which is also unreal.

None of these things came to China until the late 1990s, decade later.

It is obvious that Lou Ye just wants to make his movie cool and stylish so people will watch it. He forgets that as filmmaker, he has certain responsibility to keep story historically accurate.

What bothers me most about Summer Palace is that so many Westerners will think this movie tells some real, true things about Chinese student culture, which is mostly unreal as depicted in movie.

The New York Times review says, “remarkable for its candor.”

The Shanghaiist, a popular website for foreigners in China, says, “This is the only honest piece of Chinese filmmaking we’ve seen in a long time”

Ha! Are they serious?

On the other hand, maybe they have never watched another Chinese movie except Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I know of at least twenty, sixth-generation Chinese moves better than Summer Palace.

Even director’s first movie, Suzhou River, was better than this rubbish.

Maybe this movie is popular with foreigners because there’s so much sex and nudity and because it’s “banned by government”, which really seems to make Westerners excited.

Any movie banned by Communists is automatically “cool” to Westerners, even if movie sucks.

So why was Summer Palace banned and director Lou Ye censored for next 5 years?

Actually, it’s not because of politics because this movie tells nothing about Tiananmen Square incident. And it’s not because nudity since those scenes can easily be edited out.

It’s only because Lou Ye took the movie to Cannes Film Festival in France without permission from China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, which is necessary for all Chinese filmmakers.

Lou Ye did this expecting he would be censored, so he could proudly say his movie was “banned in China” on his movie poster and get instant praise from Western audiences.

However, for me, I think this movie should be banned just because it sucks.

It’s big disappointment and waste of 2.5 hours.

Sixth-Generation Chinese filmmakers are trying hard to be shocking without telling good stories, and Western audience praises these filmmakers because they think Chinese who show nudity are “brave”.

How can anyone call this trash art as confusing as it is?

See Hannah’s review of Red Mansion, a Chinese TV series, or visit her Blogs at Hannah Travel Adventure (Chinese) or Hannah China Backpacker (English)


Lloyd Lofthouse, the host of the Blog, is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. 

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4 Responses to “Summer Palace” Sucks

  1. Sun Gang says:

    I don’t know how relevant my comment would be given this movie was released in 2006.

    I have recently become a great fan of Lou Ye’s work after having watched Souzhou River, Spring Fever, Mystery, Purple Butterfly and now Summer Palace.

    This movie, although is about youth, is not necessary for youth. Almost told in a hindsight of a mature person who has understood the depth of love or perhaps is grappling with its existence. How it plays out in people’s lives to justify all sorts of carnal desires.

    Lou Ye ponders the idea of love as myth. Does mating require love. Is there such thing as great love, true love. How deep is one love from another. How is it that one person can be casually tossed from one’s life while another last forever, or at least a lifetime?

    I don’t believe the political dressing on the side is of any particular relevance except to provide a mere backdrop to reflect the changes that were taking place at the time. Which synchronized the tumultuous life of the main character Yu Hong.

    Whether any of the props in the moving was out of sync is no issue for me. Perhaps to fill a void that no longer could be attained.

    The love scenes some say excessive, are arguably necessary. I think they demonstrate sex as means of last resort satisfaction/release of the poor destitute savages known as the chinese students. Majority of love scenes were harsh and blatantly cold except the scenes between Yu Hong and Zhou Wei. There were touch of tenderness and warm.

    Being 140 minutes is not necessary a problem considering the film covered the transformation of the youths from teenager to an mature adult. in the span of more than one decade.

    This is one of the films you have to watch over and over again to fully appreciate the immense complexity and the depth of the story the filmmakers are trying to convey.

    • There is love and then there is lust.

      In addition, “I love you” and “I am not in love with you” could be true in the same statement where a man says both to the same woman at the same time. Love is a complex emotion that has many different levels of meaning.

      There is love at first sight.

      For example: “Romeo and Juliet” about two teens that fall in love moments after seeing each other without knowing each others’ names both and are dead within three days because of that obsessive emotion.

      Then there is “Fiddler on the Roof” where the older married couple has a conversation (in song I think) about their arranged marriage and how they did not love each other then but over time slowly fell in love with each other until they cannot imagine live without the other.

  2. Esther says:

    The only thing that sucks about this beautiful film is the review posted here by “Hannah from China”. Not only are there blatant untruths mentioned here (eg, the movie DOES NOT end the 2 main characters having sex), it appears that the reviewer simply does not possess the depth, sensitivity and intellect to fairly review this very complex movie. Even if ALL the sex scenes were to be deleted, this movie will remain a very powerful mnessage about love, relationships and life in general.

    • Esther has a right to her opinion as does Hanna, who is a Chinese citizen born in rural China and still living there with the point-of-view of a rural Chinese citizen born after the Cultural Revolution.

      Hanna saw the original movie in China without subtitles and in Mandarin.

      Hanna says in her review, “Every expat website that discusses this movie says, “It’s the kind of movie that really shows and expresses the real China and its people.”

      My question is—who is Esther?

      Is Esther a Chinese citizen who has never been to the West and has lived her entire life in China?

      Is Esther a Westerner who has never been to China and she saw an edited version with subtitles?

      Is Esther an expat living in China?

      Did Esther see the same version of “Summer Palace” or an edited copy?

      If Esther is Chinese, did she grow up in urban or rural China and if the answer is urban, which part of China?

      If the comments and posts on expat websites are saying this movie represents China and its people, they do not know the real China and their ignorance is on display and is as valuable as graffiti in a public men’s bathroom.
      However, that graffiti goes out in foreign languages to other nations and pollutes other people’s opinions of China worse than they already are.

      China is a vast country with fifty-six recognized ethnic groups with cultural differences and different spoken languages. Even the Han Chinese speaks several different languages—those in the south do not understand Chinese in the north. Shanghai citizens speak a dialect that Beijing citizens do not understand either.

      My 80 year old Chinese father-in-law speaks about seven different Chinese languages and dialects and can read the old and new Chinese language (Mao simplified Chinese when he ruled China). If you want to compare, Taiwan still uses the old version, which is more complicated than the mainland version. He also speaks English and some Russian.

      In fact, all the Chinese I’ve met and talked to in China that are closer to my father-in-law’s age are very conservative in their beliefs compared to the younger one-child urban generation.

      Then there is a huge divide between urban and rural China as if they are two different cultures and countries.

      How could anyone say that this one movie shows and expresses the real China and its people unless he or she does not know what he or she is talking about and bases his or her opinion on a limited exposure to all of China?

      By the way, Hanna and her expat fiancé, Tom Carter, spent about two years traveling all of China on foot. She was with him when he took the photos that appear in his book, China: Portrait of a People


      Most Chinese don’t know their country well enough to claim that “Summer Palace” “really shows and expresses the real China and its people”.

      After reading Hanna’s review, it looks like a limited perspective from the spoiled one-child generation living in urban China. Hanna comes from a small village in rural China, which is a different world with different moral expectations.

      For example, I recently bought the extended DVD for Avatar and it is 45 minutes longer.

      Art, novels, movies, TV dramatic/comedy/adventure are all subject to the tastes of the individual. Culture also plays a part on how the individual will respond. If you check out movies and books sold at Amazon.com, you will discover that even the most popular books and movies with hundreds of four and five star reviews also have a few one star reviews.

      It would be nice to have more context to understand who Esther is and where her opinion is coming from.

Comments are welcome — pro or con. However, comments must focus on the topic of the post, be civil and avoid ad hominem attacks.

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