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I Lost it at the Movies… SF Asian-American Film Festival

Besides the big enchilada — San Francisco’s wonderful International Film Festival — we’ve also got Asian American, Latino, Arab, Gay and Lesbian, and Jewish Film Festivals in our city (and I’m sure I’ve missed a few). This year, Michael and I are seriously doing the Asian American one, seeing six films that we’ve never heard of in the space of a week — and halfway through, we’re batting 1000. Or perhaps 1010, if you count the Festival Trailer, [NOTE upon reposting in the grown-up blog: unfortunately this is no longer available online].

It was Michael who taught me to love film festivals, for their wonderful serendipity and surprises. It’s great to open your eyes to entirely new ways of looking at the world, and to discover these visions before they’ve been pre-digested by the publicity machine.

Of course, you always get some clinkers, but this time — at least this far — we haven’t.

All three movies we’ve seen have been delights, but the one I particularly recommend, if you’re ever lucky enough to get a chance to see it, is the stunning Summer Palace.

It’s about youth and passion at the time of the 1989 democracy demonstrations (and subsequent repression) at Tienanmen Square. But that pallid description doesn’t begin to capture this kaleidescopic portrayal of what it must have been like to be 18, coming from a small provincial town to Beijing University at a time when the world was splitting open to reveal daunting, dizzying (and sometimes destructive) vistas of intellectual and erotic freedom.

Or as the Festival’s description describes it:

Certainly the most erotic and sexually explicit film to come from mainland China, SUMMER PALACE is ground-breaking in its scope, ambition and poeticism, brilliantly capturing the euphoria of liberation and the dissolution of idealism that marked this period of time.

At the film’s core is the stormy, passionate relationship between Yu Hong (Hao Lei) and Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong), students at Beijing University. Narrated by Yu, the film begins with her arrival in Beijing in 1987 and meeting with Zhou. Their sexual connection, charged by the developing political landscape just outside of their dorms, ignites as the two struggle to find a place in a world where the consequences of actions are momentarily suspended. Still young when the tumultuous events of Tiananmen Square transpire, the crackdown’s haunting aftermath tears their lives apart. Over the next decade, lovers and time intervene against a relationship which will linger and fade, but never disappear.

Lou’s films are unlike any of those of his fellow Sixth-Generation Chinese filmmakers. Restless, dynamic and sensual, they are indebted more to his French contemporaries in sensibility and style, showcasing a singular humanism, potent sexuality and blunt political force. Hao Lei and Guo Xiaodong give magnetic performances, both possessing a beauty and intensity that is impossible not to stare wide-eyed at. SUMMER PALACE is an astonishing and unforgettable masterpiece.

Though I will add the caveat that the story is epic and lifelike enough sometimes to lack coherence. And no, it’s not a movie for the HEA fetishists among you.

But the emotions rang shockingly, touchingly true for me and Michael both, and the the life-changing rush of openness and vulnerability will be with us for a very long time.

The Chinese government, by the way, has withdrawn permission from the director, Lou Ye, to make films for the next five years, though it’s not clear whether they were objecting to the democracy movement politics or the full frontal nudity — or perhaps the dazzling combination of freedoms.

We are awed and grateful to this splendidly youthful and energetic film festival.

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