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Palm Pictures presents
Summer Palace (2006)

“Had I not viewed my life in the light of the ideal, its mediocrity would have been unbearable.”
- Yu Hong (Lei Hao)

Review By: Chuck Aliaga   
Published: March 10, 2008

Stars: Lei Hao, Guo Xiaodong
Other Stars: Ling Hu, Xianmin Zhang
Director: Lou Ye

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (adult situations, sexual situations)
Run Time: 02h:14m:35s
Release Date: March 11, 2008
UPC: 660200316228
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-BB+ B-

DVD Review

We’ve seen our share of historical epics in recent years, but there is one era and location that is rarely mined for cinematic gold. In Summer Palace, the place is China, and the era is 1987-2001, a period in that part of the world that ran the gamut from political unrest to eventual signs of hope for an entire culture. With this, his latest film, director Lou Ye (Purple Butterfly) continues to make a name for himself, while pushing the envelope and taking constant heat from the Chinese government for his films’ subject matter. Discover the controversial Summer Palace for yourself (it was banned in China) on Palm Pictures’ nice DVD release of the film.

Yu Hong (Lei Hao) is a girl that knows little of life in the big city, but she leaves her comfortable country living to study in Beijing. It’s there that she meets Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong), with whom she has a torrid, passionate love affair. Against the backdrop of political unrest in the late 1980’s, Yu and Zhou continue the epitome of a love/hate relationship full of sexual games, numerous betrayal, and undying love. Along with friends Li Ti (Ling Hu) and Ruo Gu (Xianmin Zhang), these Chinese students live through historical events such as riots in Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall, while never wavering from their youthful spirit. At least that’s the case for most of these complex youngsters.

This is a gripping, borderline masterpiece from a much-maligned director. Ye has overcome much to gain the funds and sheer ability to make this picture, despite his being constantly challenged by the Chinese government. They not only banned Summer Palace, but also banned Ye from filmmaking for two years in 2000, when his Suzhou River was made without the government’s consent. His latest film not only pulls no punches when it comes to Ye’s opinions about the government, but the film’s graphic, yet beautifully shot sex scenes were deemed to be far too much. These scenes power much of the film, as they are never gratuitous, and play a huge part in chronicling the intense dynamics of Yu and Zhou’s more-than-rocky relationship.

The epic scope works mostly to the film's advantage, thanks in large part to director Ye’s consistent ability to generate a nice flow to the proceedings. Still, it is about 20 minutes too long, with many scenes that meander on. There are parts of all of these sequences that could easily be trimmed, and a bit more restraint on Ye’s part might have put the film over the top and maybe even granted it the distinction of being a “modern classic.” He gets tons of mileage out of his young cast, with Hao a commanding presence, as she’s asked to carry a good two-thirds of the film’s running time. Hu is also quite impressive as Yu Hong’s longtime devoted friend, and her work over the last third of the film is beyond award-worthy.

There’s a great musical montage (a tired cliché that rarely works) which serves as a transitional device during the film’s halfway point. This takes us from the first half, the college years period, through the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and to the “adult” years in post-British China. The original score by Peyman Yazdanian is extremely powerful, blending in quite well with the well-written dialogue. There are many quiet, reflective sequences, but when the score is needed, it nearly acts as a separate, unforgettable character. This is as close to a complete, political character study as you’re ever going to see, be it from Hollywood, or among the best that international cinema has to offer.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation features nicely detailed sharp images, despite the intentional, documentary look of the film. The colors are drab, but this isn’t much of a surprise either, given the way the movie was shot. There is some grain, but, once again, this is inherent of the shooting style, and is the only visual “blemish.”

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Mandarin, Germanyes
Dolby Digital
Mandarin, Germanyes

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is a great track, highlighted by the aforementioned excellent score, which can be heard from all speakers. The dialogue is always crystal clear, and, most importantly, it blends in perfectly with the music and other sound effects at crucial moments.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Purple Butterfly, The Method, Ten Canoes
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The extras include the Making of Summer Palace, which runs for 36 minutes and gives us an in-depth look at what went into the film’s production. We see plenty of on-set footage, but there are also informative interviews with much of the cast and crew.

Chinese Censorship is a five-minute sit-down with director Lou Ye and others, during which they talk about the massive controversy that led to Summer Palace being banned by the Chinese government.

There’s also the theatrical trailer for Summer Palace along with previews for other Palm Pictures releases.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

Chinese director Lou Ye’s Summer Palace is a wonderful way to get a closer look a crucial point in world history. Also an engrossing character study, this film is sure to stick with you for a long time. Palm’s DVD features excellent audio and video quality, with a few nice extra features complementing the film.


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