|Yihe yuan 2006 China, France Summer Palace|
That's all the character development I need. This is an ambitious film about the stalled maturation of an idealistic but troubled young woman flanked by the Tiananmen Square protests, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the handover of Hong Kong to mainland China. The film spans a decade and a half from 1987 to 2003 so I guess the misery of Three Gorges Dam couldn't make the final cut. The direction is a little chaotic at times but it reflects the nature of the film and doesn't come off as too much of a liability. The soundtrack is impeccably chosen and the film is ultimately very sad. I was glued to this 140 minute masterpiece. Politics aside, and they are on the side, this is a remarkable film in its honest portrayal of failure, not of personal character necessarily, but of circumstance.
This is another film that got its director and producer banned for five years from making films in China. Maybe it's the full-frontal nudity or the sheer quantity of sex scenes but I don't see the need for hubbub. The film is about a woman's self-reflection on why she finds comfort in the arms of different men. We see her naked inside and out. She is afraid to love out of fear, fear of something she hasn't yet experienced, but isn't that the scariest kind of fear?
There are a number of things wrong with the film, perhaps, but very little could be done to improve it. Great films succeed in spite of their weaknesses. I'm not a fan of off camera narration but it works for me here. It seems additional rather than necessary. There is a maturity to the woman's voice as she narrates with entries from her diary that compliments, does not seem at odds with, the can't quite grow up activities of the woman on screen. In order to get from the Berlin Wall to the Hong Kong Handover, 1989 to 1997, we're treated to narrative onscreen text to fill us in on what's happening to the characters. Ordinarily that would be a deal breaker for me, in theory at least, but again, it works. Finally, as if this were a real story about real people, after the final denouement occurs we're given updates on what happened or didn't happen to the principle characters. Frankly, as gut-wrenchingly sad but true as the final scene is I wish it would have just faded to black. But I think it's a tribute to the strength of the characters that I found myself intrigued by the postscript.
Having said that, one could argue from a strictly script perspective that a little more fleshing out of character was in order ... and I don't mean full-frontal. But I would argue against a need to dish out explanations for why people act inexplicably. I think it comes down to this: if you've ever known passionate, poetic, misguided imperfect people, you know these people right away. They're part beautiful and part brutal, there's no talking them out of it. It's part of their charm. This film doesn't set out to explain, diagnose, or change its characters. It just wants to show them to us in all their painful glory; and I think it does a very good job of it. Then again, maybe it's just a case of been there, done that.
Summary: Country girl Yu Hong leaves her village, her family and her lover to study in Beijing. At university, she discovers an intense world of sexual freedom and forbidden pleasure. Enraptured, compulsive, she falls madly in love with fellow student Zhou Wei. Driven by obsessive passions they can neither understand nor control, their relationship becomes one of dangerous games - betrayals, recriminations, provocations - as all around them, their fellow students begin to demonstrate, demanding democracy and freedom. Protests collapse, and Yu and Zhou lose each other amidst the social chaos and panicked crowds. Zhou Wei is sent to a summer military camp, and on his release moves to Berlin, fleeing both his country and memories of Yu. She finds a job, a lover, but can not forget Zhou. In Germany, social unrest is mounting: calls for freedom, demonstrations for democracy. A familiar story for Zhou. Weary, still haunted by Yu, he returns to China as the Berlin Wall crashes down. He finds her at last, in a small town. From evening to dawn, their future stretches before them, two changed souls in a changed world.