[This defense of Lou Ye’s Summer Palace was posted on a private discussion group in June 2008. Michael Sicinski had asked me to explain my enthusiasm for this film, which was greeted by naps from most audiences that encountered it. A quote from Michael’s original post is offset with > symbols. Since I have encountered few writings by other Lou Ye champions, I’m posting this in hopes of finding other lonely souls.]

Subject Line: About the Narrative Pleasures of Summer Palace

Dear Michael,

My natural response to many of your comments is to say that they're just you… but since most people share your inclination, it must be me. So I guess all the comments below should come with the IMHO caveat even more than usual.

> The first ten minutes of Summer Palace (the pre-credits sequence)
> show what this guy can do when he's firing on all the cylinders. He
> continually edits on action in the frame, and this together with the
> gracefully swooping camerawork makes for just some fantastic Pure
> Cinema. But this doesn't really last.

Maybe the opening sequence jumped out the most to you because it (and perhaps the final section) is possibly the only part of the film to be shown in something resembling a present tense. Therefore it’s also the only section to have an accompanying sense of immediacy and pure experience. But more on that in a moment.

For me the editing remains pretty jagged throughout. There are countless moments especially during The College Years when events and details are sprinting along and the viewer has to run to catch up. I've found it exhilarating each time I've seen the film.

Your comment that I take the most umbrage at is that Lou's style becomes televisual. Using Dan Sallitt's excellent blog post on Vadim vs. Nakahira, Lou never reduces his images down to a single idea; the characters and objects are always existing in their environment.

Perhaps some of my passionate response to Summer Palace comes down to my background as an English major. Many of the strongest elements of the film summon up old pleasures and deep influences of my aesthetic sensibilities. The film makes smart use of some of the sharpest tools in the modernist narrative toolkit – ones honed by inspired craftspeople such as Virginia Woolf and Gilberto Hernandez. I find the temporal expansion and contraction of Summer Palace quite moving; the way the film breezes through a decade's worth of events in two or three minutes (while set to a tune that sounds like the Chinese equivalent of The Outfield) but then spends a reel or two in stasis.

The most obvious predecessor is To the Lighthouse and I think this connection with Woolf would be worth exploring. She wrote the "Time Passes" section of that novel with the distanced perspective of newsreels in mind and at the same time that she was writing that central section of the novel, she was also writing an essay called "The Cinema." The tone she takes is somewhat in synch with what Lou is doing. (From that essay: "We see life as it is when we have no part in it… Further, all this happened ten years ago, we are told. We are beholding a world which has gone beneath the waves. Brides are emerging from the abbey – they are now mothers; ushers are ardent – they are now silent; mothers are tearful; guests are joyful; this has been won and this had been lost, and it is over and done with.") Except in Summer Palace, ten years later they're still trying to determine what has been won and what has been lost and when it will all be over and done with.

And duration is at the heart of the second half of the film, which seems to be the section that most people have the most serious problems with. The film has a series of false endings (starting with the "Time Passing" section) in a way that slightly recalls a more attenuated She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Like the Ford film, the effect is a deflation of drama. If you're primarily interested in (or expecting) drama, naturally this is an undesirable effect. But if you can get past this, then you can enter into the ways that the film explores the subtly variegated textures of mood, memory, and time. And you need a wide swath of time to accomplish this. I'm not saying that it's a perfect film; I can think of some moments that don't work. But, for me, it would be a matter of trimming five minutes or so not an hour or 45 minutes like most people suggest. You probably have to be something of an obsessive person to groove on the second half, too. The way the piano dirge swells up every five minutes or so probably requires a certainly kind of pathology to be able to appreciate, or even tolerate.

Also, the general shape of the narrative diverges from convention in very generative ways – at least for this viewer. Phil Solomon has astutely described (in his essential interview in A Critical Cinema 5) how, as the majority of narrative drives progress, they increasingly winnow out possible directions that the narrative (and characters) make take. So the effect, like the zoom in WAVELENGTH, is of windows and objects of potential import or digression gradually falling from view as it becomes increasingly important to focus solely on denouement. But, for me, it was almost breathtaking when the narrative begins to open up in unpredictable ways during and after the "Time Passing" section. Characters develop in ways that defy "character development", instead their paths have more to do with lives being lived. What makes it even more interesting is that while the narrative is opening up instead of closing down – a literal world of possibility becomes available to them – the characters use whatever agency they have to try to remain within the narrow realm that they were liberated from. This is a much more interesting tension to me than the traditional "drama" that would usually occur.

But to get back to the jagged editing and the sense of "running to catch up" with the narrative… Thoughout the film (primarily during the first half but, as I remember, also on occasion in the second
half) Lou presents a whole scene in just one brief shot. This is not a particularly novel technique, but the uninterrupted lengths of time that Lou employs it do seem almost radical at times. He parcels out information at breakneck speed and the viewer becomes as dizzy as the protagonists, whose heads are rushing with a surfeit of experience or are swept up in a life that is moving along at its own volition. If one were to explore this device a bit more, a valuable point of comparison would be some of Gilbert Hernandez's most inspired and frenzied Love & Rockets output (say, "Poison River" or "The High Soft Lisp") where he essentializes each scene down to one panel and does this for pages at a time. Each individual panel doesn't carry more weight than an average panel but cumulatively they achieve a
commanding density. I'd have to re-watch the film to get more detailed about it but the times I watched the film, it felt like a very jagged, exciting type of montage.

Didn't plan on writing almost 1500 words on this… and have barely touched the surface of the things I liked about SUMMER PALACE. I've mainly dwelled on broad narrative issues because those are the
easiest to reduce to words. So much of the film's virtues – mood, memory, tense (sorry I never got back to this one but I'm all writed out right now), music ("Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Back Seat" and the second best cinematic use of a Toni Basel song for starters), one of the best portraits of college life that I've ever seen, or even the specifics of the narrative – would require more time and finesse to translate into text… and they would certainly require another viewing. This will hopefully suffice for now. But I guess it just comes down to the fact that I did not find this movie boring as ass.

Speaking of ass, why has no one pointed out that the opening shot of the new Indianapolis Jones movie is of a CGI prairie dog. That is kind of all you need to say about this picture in my opinion.

cstults

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 Summer Palace   (Lou Ye, 2006)