Set against the backdrop of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, Summer Palace is an intoxicating story of tumultuous young love during a time a social unrest. Yu Hong, an impulsive young woman, meets Zhou Wei at Beijing University during the summer of 1989. The two idealists ignite a fiery romance that burns alongside their fellow students' blazing pursuit for political reform. But as the tanks roll into Tiananmen Square, crushing the romantic ideals of an entire generation, Yu Hong and Zhou Wei suddenly find themselves disenchanted and unable to love each other.
The film, split into two distinct halves, pivots around the events at Tiananmen Square – a subject still extremely taboo in China and rarely broached in cinema. The filmmakers address the subject obliquely but the fact that they address it at all makes this film one of the most compelling examples of contemporary Chinese cinema. We catch glimpses of the protest and the military brutality is implied, not shown.
To me, Summer Palace isn't just about the volatility of young love but the gnawing disillusionment that quietly consumed the Tiananmen Generation after the June 4th massacre. In the first half of the film, we witness Yu Hong's exhilarating sexual awakening. Underscoring the scenes of passionate lovemaking is a painful vulnerability. Yu Hong narrates from her diary, revealing an irreconcilable psyche that is both poetic and turbulent. Her coming of age echoes the experiences of those at Tiananmen Square. Propelled by unified idealism, the Tiananmen Generation hurled towards what would've been a revolution. And for brief moments when they danced on the Square and ate with the soldiers, they did taste true freedom, just as Yu Hong tasted spiritual and physical fulfillment with Zhou Wei.
In the second half of the film, Yu Hong, having lost Zhou Wei, drops out of university and moves to the southern city of Wuhan. Her journey from her northern hometown of Tumen – a city bordered by North Korea and Russia – to Beijing and then to the relatively more liberal south is perhaps a metaphor for the Tiananmen Generation's continued yearning for freedom. In the south, she sleeps with different men, desperately trying to fill the void that Zhou Wei left. Zhou Wei, now living in Berlin where the wall has just collapsed, suffers the same sense of desolation. “What happened to us that summer?” Zhou Wei asks in one scene. Like the rest of the Tiananmen Generation, both are seeking to reconcile with a past that is too painful to understand. When Zhou Wei and Yu Hong are finally reunited in Chongqing, they have nothing to say to each other apart from asking: “Where do we go from here?”
Over the last few months, I've met many Tiananmen Square refugees now living in Australia, as part of my research for a documentary project. “Where do we go from here?” is a question that seems pertinent to many of them. They are people living in the in-between, displaced from their homes and scarred by betrayal. Although none of the characters ever talk directly about Tiananmen Square in Summer Palace, the film reflects history and politics through a love story with brutal honesty and surprising clarity.
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