In Lou Ye’s Summer Palace — opening here nearly two years after Lou earned a half-decade filmmaking ban for letting Cannes see it before censors could — youth is freedom of movement. As a casually introduced cast of Beijing students hop into each other's beds (the film features more sex, it’s said, than any film in Chinese history) in the months leading up to the Tiananmen Square protests, Lou’s flexible, responsive camera flows along in natural light, and the soundtrack pulls promiscuously from Toni Basil and Tchaikovsky. The montage editing is at its freest as the romances reach their most frenzied pitch, and everyone piles into the back of a pickup headed for the Square. They’re singing, waving banners — and Lou cuts to actual footage of the protests in one breathless moment, like their youth really is the most important thing in the world.
Though Summer Palace’s breathing is elsewhere pretty labored. Lou, who even at his most detached is a better sense-memoirist than dramatist, was the same age as his characters in ’89, so no surpise that his day-to-day leans on guesstimated characterizations and a purple, lead-butterfly voice-over. But, after Tiananmen, a funny thing happens: the world keeps going, through social upheavals, migrations and adult relationships. Like the Korean director Im Sang-soo’s undistributed The Old Garden — in a nutshell: “the revolution is short, life is long” — Summer Palace’s subdued Side Two suggests how a settled present can feel indeterminate to people defined personally by youthful passion and politically by history. The burn is slow enough that, by the end, even scenes that initially played as halting Unbearable Lightness of Being approximations recede to texture, looming large and elusive in memory.