Monday, February 11, 2008

Movies: Summer Palace

I was snookered into seeing this movie by a friend who usually knows what she's talking about. She said it was great—not to be missed!—so I went. By the way, it's in Chinese, and from Ye Lou, a female director.* If you know me, you know that I like some Chinese movies (the romantic ones less than the violent ones), but I tend to loathe female artists of all stripes (authors are the worst, but even the average slag on the street usually drives me to wit's end).

Yu Hong (Lei Hao) is a quiet, emotionally hungry (annoying) girl, resigned to unenjoyable missionary sex in an abandoned lot with her callous, boorish boyfriend, until she gets into Beijing University (never mind the fact that both she, her boyfriend, and all of her soon-to-be-schoolmates look old enough to be advanced grad students) and meets a much better looking (but also pretty callous) young man with whom to have (perhaps slightly more pleasing) missionary sex. When she's not having sex, she's engaging in proto-lesbianic behavior with new female friends, going out for political adventures (the film was marketed as being "about" the Tiananmen Square incident, but the few scenes that fulfill that promise are less pleasing than boyfriend #1), and writing in her journal in any empty outdoor pool while pollen motes float all around her body and she writhes around in some unspecified (and rather nineteenth-century psychoanalysis-style) neurotic ecstasy. After a fit of jealousy possesses her will (she sees her man eating noodles with another woman), she picks a fight with him and then proceeds to burn through a string of alternate lovers—including a graduate student instructor, a married man, and a dopey mailroom clerk—as she gets older, finds a job, and moves from one city to another, all of whose hearts she trounces, in the name of "the one who got away."

Meanwhile, the one who got away moves to Germany, following his (married) lover, who was Yu's own best (proto-lesbianic) friend, and who might have been sleeping with him all along. When he decides to at last leave Germany, the proto-lesbianic friend (in another fit of womany-ness), drops herself off the roof of a building (echoing the young Yu, whom she had years ago "rescued" from a potential jump off a roof back in school, when her relationship with boyfriend #2 had dissolved). Eventually, he finds himself with his life put somewhat back together, and is riding a pleasure boat with his new girlfriend and his coworkers when he sees an old college friend come out of the mist—she gives him Yu's email address, and he contacts his old flame, who has been (believe it or not) married for two years (why we aren't subjected to lengthy scenes of her having sex with this new lover is beyond me; we've already seen about 30 accumulated minutes of fucking). They meet at a gas station, and he drives her to his apartment. Before they have sex, she decides to go out and buy some liquor, and she doesn't go back. And then it's over.

Aside from reinforcing my distaste for the irrational emotion defining femininity in general, this film reminded me just how absolutely ugly communism is. Except for the scenes shot in Germany, everyone wears abominable combinations of hideous rags in a range of taupes and grays (as well as the occasional clashing prints), and Yu constantly makes unforgivable fashion faux-pas such as two-inch chunk-heel strappy sandals with drooping ankle socks (offset, of course, by a mid-calf A-line brown corduroy skirt). I don't mean to be shallow or catty, but ugh, watching two hours of people dressed like this makes you glad to see them undress. But then, watching a man's writhing naked backside while a woman underneath him makes faces can be rather tiresome, too. It's interesting to note that Yu, for all the sex she has, doesn't find herself (put herself?) anywhere but flat on her back until she has the affair with the married man. One sees a lot of stereotypes about certain women's submissiveness cemented here, and I don't much like that. It's rather sad to see a female director so willingly buy in to femininity as culture served it up in the 19th Century.

*Please read the comments below, as this post contains serious factual errors.

3 comments:

blingrhames said...

Lou Ye is a man, you should fact check.

Dahl said...

blingrhames is right. Ye Lou is a man, and I should fact check. I make these kinds of mistakes all the time. I could blame my friend who took me to see the movie and told me it was directed by a woman. Or, I could rewrite the post. Or, I could ask myself why I was so quick to pin the blame for the film's insipidness on the gender of the director. I can reconsider my closing sentence, and ask myself whether 19th Century-style feminity is any less disturbing when promoted by a man than by a woman. I can willingly identify myself as part of the post-feminist backlash. I can decide that I don't like the movie any better knowing that a man made it.

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