With his previous two features, Suzhou River (2000) and Purple Butterfly (2003), Sixth-Generation Chinese director Lou Ye has earned mostly unfavorable comparisons to Wong Kar-wai. However, he finally gets away from that with his new film, Summer Palace, which, instead, moves closer to seminal works by his own countrymen. Summer Palace is a tormented romance set between 1987 and 2001 in which a country girl, Yu Hong (Hao Lei), goes to school in Beijing, meets Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong), and gets caught up in a whirlwind of romantic and social changes. Two other Chinese filmmakers have attempted historical dramas of this type, set against a backdrop of real, fairly recent events. The best of the Fifth Generation team of filmmakers, Tian Zhuangzhuang, made The Blue Kite (1993), and the best of the Sixth Generation team, Jia Zhang-ke, made Platform (2000).
Quite frankly, Lou's work pales next to these twin masterworks, but Summer Palace also comes with its own collection of beautifully dislocated moments. At times the film feels forced, or squeezed, to include certain events. Somehow, during the course of this timeline, our heroes manage to make it to Berlin in time for the Wall to come down in 1989, and to Hong Kong in time for the handover in 1997. Far more appropriate is the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Yu Hong, Zhou Wei and their friends join the fray in high spirits, thrilled to be a part of something so big, perhaps without realizing just how far it stretched and what it all meant. It could be argued that they saw it as a giant party, and a chance to sing, dance, and perhaps meet someone and get laid.