Female Melancholia and Historical Trauma in Summer Palace (2006)

By Na Ma, Ohio University


This paper examines how June Fourth and its aftermath have been rendered onscreen and in people. In Summer Palace, this event has been creatively positioned and its historical trauma can be substantially seen through Yu Hong’s hysteria and melancholia state via numerous diary entries and unrestrained sex. I also use Freud’s theory to analyze Yu Hong’s melancholia stage, from the personal source of trauma (an unsuccessful love relationship) and a historical source of trauma (unconsciously historical events). The personal experience of joining the Tiananmen Square Incident and seeing the cruel massacre has traumatized many Chinese people, including Yu Hong. Lou Ye, the director of Summer Palace, who grew up in the political environment of the Cultural Revolution, has imported into national cinema his personal thinking about the correct attitudes toward history. This paper thus also discusses the imprint of the post-trauma of other historical events, including the Cultural Revolution, in this movie.

Keywords: melancholia, trauma, Summer Palace, Tiananmen, transnational cinema

Melancholia and Historical Trauma in Summer Palace (2006)

Summer Palace (Lou Ye, 2006) is a classical Chinese film set in modern China. It is banned in China because it contains sensitive historical events and daring sex scenes. This film displays the Tiananmen Square Incident of 1989 and narrates the sexual experience of a female, Yu Hong (played by Hao Lei) in the 80s and 90s.

Lou Ye: Summer Palace

The film is divided into two parts. The first begins in the late 1980s, as Yu Hong enters Beiqing University, where she meets Li Ti, who becomes her best friend (Hu Lingling); Ruo Gu, Li Ti’s boyfriend (Zhang Xianmin); and Zhou Wei, the love of her life (Guo Xiaodong). Yu Hong’s precious friendship with Li Ti and her romantic relationship with Zhou Wei lapse after her discovery of Zhou Wei’s affair with Li Ti on June 4th, the night of the Tiananmen Square Incident in 1989. Later that evening, Yu Hong’s old boyfriend Xiao Jun (Cui Jin) arrives from Tumen (Yu Hong’s hometown), and the two of them leave and Yu Hong drops out of school. These three idealists have therefore departed.

The film’s second part tracks the lives of these three people in the 1990s and 2000s. In the 1990s, Yu Hong leaves Tumen for Shenzhen and then finds a job in Wuhan. She can’t forget Zhou Wei and has sex with a married man and a mailroom worker. Meanwhile, Li Ti, Ruo Gu and Zhou Wei live a quiet life in Berlin, where Li Ti and Zhou Wei still occasionally have sex. In the 2000s, after she has an abortion, Yu Hong moves to Chongqing and marries, while Li Ti commits suicide after Zhou Wei announces plans to return to China and look for Yu Hong. After more than ten years, Yu Hong is reunited with Zhou Wei in the resort city of Beidaihe but discovers that their love for each other no longer exists and they leave each other.

Summer Palace has received positive reviews from around the world because of the successful frank portrayal of the 1989 democracy movement and the unique angle used to import the historical trauma. This movie, however, is not well known and not welcome in official China. So far it has not been screened openly in China. The director Lou Ye was not allowed to direct films for five years because of this movie. It was said that it is a punishment for sending the movie to the Cannes Film Festival without government approval. Summer Palace has been banned in China since 2006. The censors claim that they refused to approve this movie because of its poor quality, but actually the authorities are too conservative to show a movie that contains numerous sex scenes and bold frontal nudity, Moreover they are scared that by seeing this movie Chinese people will find out the truth about the 1989 turmoil and will be anguished. “Reviewing Summer Palace would have required censors to address the film’s use of documentary footage of the social upheaval in 1989 that led to the massacre of an untold number of pro-Democracy students by China’s army in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.” As Huang (2010) explains, “The events 17 years ago still officially are considered counter-revolutionary” at the highest levels of the Chinese government.”

This paper will examine how Summer Palace imports the historical event, the Tiananmen Square Incident, with the narration of Yu Hong’s personal love relationship, and how the historical trauma of the Tiananmen Square Incident, is combined with Yu Hong’s personal trauma, and displayed as melancholia in Freud’s theory.


In this movie, there are great parts of Yu Hong’s voice-over reading her own diary, which symbolizes her depressed state. Thirteen excerpts of the diary narrations are employed in the movie, including the opening scene. The voice-over narration in the opening scene describes Yu Hong’s vague but lost feelings after she loses Zhou Wei on the night of the Tiananmen Square massacre:

There is something that comes suddenly like a wind on a warm summer’s evening. It catches you off guard, and leaves you without peace. It follows you like a shadow, and is impossible to shake. I can’t tell what it is, so I can only call it love.

The narration of Yu Hong’s diary mentions a very important “something” that “leaves you without peace” and “follows like a shadow”, and causes most of Yu Hong’s melancholia. On one hand, it can be called “love,” Yu Hong’s love for Zhou Wei. Because of Zhou Wei’s betrayal, she needs to hold and hide her love, or subvert her feelings. Since the love is just depressed but not removed, so it is lingering in Yu Hong’s heart for years even after they part. This caused long-term melancholia. On the other hand, this “something” can be understood as “personal trauma” to Yu Hong or “historical trauma” to Lou Ye. Even Yu Hong or Lou Ye “can’t tell what it is”. Yu Hong can’t tell it is personal trauma from the first unsuccessful relationship, because she doesn’t want to admit she is traumatized inside or she even doesn’t acknowledge the first time sex experience caused the trauma. Lou Ye can’t tell if it is historical trauma because he can’t so boldly say the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen Square massacre caused the trauma, considering the strictly sensitive political environment.

Mourning the dead, and the mourning work (in this movie, the diary is the form of mourning work), as Freud (2005) tells us in Mourning and Melancholia, is an essential need of the individual for return to a normal life. Yu Hong is not able to mourn her lost virginity and the unsuccessful first sex experience, and cannot find another chance to redo her first sex act. According to Freud, those who cannot mourn, may develop into a “pathological state”, termed melancholia.

Self Denial

Self-denial, as Freud (2005) describes it, coexists with an agent of healing in the mourning work; in the melancholic, however, this denial has become “pathological, fixated and damaging” to the self. Many narrations in the diary express Yu Hong’s self-denial tendency, such as “stupid”,  “lost”, and “curse myself”.

There is one scene in which Yu Hong sits in the cold ground after Zhou Wei hits her in the dorm. She seems so sad and desperate. Zhou Wei’s violence has increased her sense of depression and loss in the relationship. She writes her thoughts with obvious contradictions:

Zhou Wei hit me, I cried. He hugged me, for a long, long time. This is not the most unhappy thing, the most unhappy thing is that I know this would continue to happen to me. I curse myself, being stupid and lost. There is always a hallucination that I run too far and have passed him when I am so desperate to see him. I think you are far away, but you are just here holding my hand, being quiet.

When violence is involved, the relationship is no longer healthy. Yu Hong feels scared that she loves Zhou Wei more than Zhou Wei loves her. She is also scared about whether Zhou Wei really loves her or just wants to have sex with her. Yu Hong is so sensitive about having sex with Zhou Wei and thinks sex and love cannot coexist. The relations between sex and love totally confuse her, which drags her melancholia to another level.

According to Freud (2005), the self-denial has two different stages: denial with self-damaging desire and denial with self-fixated desire. Yu Hong’s diary narrations during the lovemaking scene with her true lover Zhou Wei is a stage of self-fixated; Yu Hong’s wild sex affairs with other men she does not love after leaving Zhou Wei, but with diary narrations, is a conflation process of self-damaging and self-fixated.

Diary Narrations: Fixated Desire in Self-denial

Yu Hong’s diary narrations that intersperse the narrative when she is in love with Zhou Wei, according to Berry (2011), are a “desperate way for her to communicate with the world and try to create meaning in her life” (p. 343).

The diary contents depict the changing state of her depression. According to the diary, Yu Hong’s melancholia can be divided into two stages. Since the diary is strongly influenced by her relationship with Zhou Wei, and they part on the same night as the Tiananmen Square incident, the stage of depression can be divided: before the Tiananmen Square incident and after. In the early stage, when being love with Zhou Wei has increased her depression, Yu Hong uses her diary as a portal to releasing her happiness as well as worries.

For example, there are two scenes when Yu Hong sits in an empty swimming pool, either writing or reading her diary, with the wind blowing yellow leaves from the cold ground. Lonely ground, flying leaves, gloomy music, sad face, and lost thoughts are the main themes in those two scenes. The first scene is just after she meets Zhou Wei. She writes in her diary to record her happy but guilty feelings:

You came into my life and you have become my best friend. This is not hard, because from the first sight I know we are on the same side of the world, not to mention the first sleepless night when we were just talking instead of having sex. But our relationship is not pure, and can’t be judged by pleasure or unpleasure. I just want to live a more exciting life. This is very obvious between you and me, because sometimes I can’t focus my mind on you. Desire is contaminated, action is prevented, I even feel this in love. There is no desire but only fantasy. Fantasy is a killer.

We can see Zhou Wei has brought her happiness. Chatting instead of having sex with Yu Hong on the first night is one of the most important reasons that make Yu Hong thinks Zhou Wei is her true love and soul mate. But Yu Hong also worries about this relationship after the sex, because she thinks their relationship is not “pure”. She points out this is not about “pleasure” or “unpleasure,” but is about sex. She feels guilty because she thinks sex has contaminated the pureness of their relationship. Asceticism is an important element of Confucian beliefs and it points out that unlimited sex could create a female image as a whore or even as evil. Yu Hong knows this, but her sexual desire encourages her to make love with Zhou Wei. She therefore feels lost and worries she will lose this precious love. We can see this when she is crawling on the cold ground, struggling about the fantasies between pure ascetic love and the evil sexual desire.

In Freud’s theory, this melancholia phrase contains Yu Hong’s self-fixated attempts. Her two souls fight with each other about “asceticism love, palate love” (pure love) and “romantic love, sensual love” (sex love), is a display of her finding the right “love rule”. She just wants the right rule to protect her love relationship with Zhou Wei.

Immortal Sex: Damaging Desire in Self-denial

In the late stage, Yu Hong continues to use her diary as an attempt to heal her depression, but her diary is not good enough and she turns into unrestrained sex activity. Being away from Zhou Wei has exacerbated her depression Yu Hong’s melancholia has gradually developed from a self-fixated state into a self-damaging one.

In the ensuing years, Yu Hong uses wild sex to fill the absence of Zhou Wei and her emptiness. She “futilely attempts to relive the excitement of her youth and the passion of her love with Zhou Wei as she travels from city to city and from man to man.” (Berry, 2011, p. 343).  After her breakup with Zhou Wei, she drops out of school and leaves him. But she cannot forget him, and continually seeks sex with many men for pleasure, including a married man and a mail worker. Yu Hong’s sex acts are accompanied with Yu Hong’s nondiegetic voice-over readings of her diary. There is one scene in which Yu Hong makes love with a married man on a rainy afternoon. Their passionate sex is mediated by the following diary entry:

Looking through my photo album, I came across a picture of Zhou Wei. My heart raced wildly. One look, and all the joy and pain flooded back. Staring at his image, I asked myself how it was that on this serene face, open, frank and resolute, I saw no trace, no shadow, that could make me doubt? Why could nothing he’d said to me, or done to me, prevent my heart from going out to him? Apparently, I was the one pursuing him, yearning for him, but I never felt enslaved. At times, I was clearer than he was. The memories brought tears, and the resolve to endure. Today is Saturday and I’m screwed again. Tonight, there was nothing to do but to go to him. He has a wife. She’s away studying.

From this narration, Yu Hong has indeed become concerned that her unstrained sex with a married man is “immoral”, but she is so eager to fill her emptiness with “no room for anything else”. Working at a monotonous government office job, and being away from Zhou Wei, Yu Hong becomes increasingly lost. She does not care about mortality or immortality, but she just wants to use sex to forget Zhou Wei, to destroy herself.

Bresheeth (2006) points out an interesting difference between the mourning and the melancholia: the former is invoked by a dead object while the latter is triggered by a loss of what Freud calls an “ideal kind”. In Summer Palace, Yu Hong’s mourning stage before the Tiananmen Square massacre, as explained above, is a process of grieving over her dead virginity. In the melancholia stage, as Freud (2005) indicates, the loss is not necessarily a death and can be lost as an object of love. Therefore, Yu Hong’s melancholia is triggered by Zhou Wei’s leaving or the loss of Zhou Wei.

Dairy Narrations in Unrestrained Sex Scenes

To depict Yu Hong’s increasingly intensified melancholia, Lou Ye uses in Summer Palace a subtle but bold narrative method: intensive sex scenes.

There are more than six sex scenes in this one hundred twenty-minute film. It boldly displays masturbation, heterosexual intercourse, homosexual allusions, and even full frontal male and female nudity. The is the first film from mainland China that has featured the full frontal nudity of both male and female characters, while earlier films such as Xiao Wu (1998), Lan Yu (2001), Green Hat (2003), and Star Appeal (2004), only have male nudity.

Bold sex scenes and political undertones have made the film very controversial in China, leading Lou Ye and his producers into conflict with China’s State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT). SARFT banned this film in China, after Summer Palaces screening in the 2006 Cannes Film Festival without government approval.

This controversial banned film, however, successfully uses sex scenes to describe forthrightly Yu Hong’s strong sexual desire. As Berry (2011) clarifies, the attention to sexuality mirrors “the culture and arts to business and economics” (p. 343) and expresses “the passion and newfound freedom being” (p. 345) explored by China’s students at that time, just as Yu Hong’s artful desperation and her existential crisis.

Every time Yu Hong makes love with other men, nondiegetic voice-over readings and fragmented soliloquies of her diary appear at the same time.

We met at a karaoke bar. I really feel we’re in the same boat. Alone… and without purpose. A colleague who knows the law told me that our affair isn’t illegal, but immoral. What is morality? Two people together: I think that’s morality. When he and I are like that, when our bodies merge, I trust him. I feel the will to succeed. Making love with him consumes me entirely. There is no room for anything else. But I know with a terrible certainty that my passion for him will not last. I know that I can kiss him but that I won’t remain. Humans yearn to be alone. And they long for death. Why else do we fight with those we love most? Why this indifference to what is in front of us, our eyes fixed always on the unreachable?

These diary narrations not only reveal Yu Hong’s dark inner world, but are also full of “desperation and sadness” (p. 343). This melancholia state, as Berry (2011) elaborates, places the sexual acts in a new context.

Sex scenes with diary narrations, however, also de-eroticize Yu Hong’s sexual images on screen. In the first half of the movie, Yu Hong’s sex partner is her true lover Zhou Wei, while in the second half, Yu Hong’s sex partners are only carnal substitutes for Zhou Wei. Without love, the lovemaking with other men is no longer passionate as it was with Zhou Wei. It has become more mechanical, without any feelings. Those diary narrations have infused Yu Hong’s hurt and sorrow into the sex scenes.

Sex with Violence: Self-destructive Compulsions

Therefore, as Berry (2011) says, Yu Hong’s sexual desire is also the product of a deep psychological scar. This could lead to Yu Hong’s first but unsuccessful sex experience with her boyfriend Xiao Jun. After Xiao Jun fights over her on a basketball court and gets injured, he and Yu Hong make love in a deserted grass field, with the lingering sound of a train in the background. A grass field is absolutely not the romantic place most girls have imagined thousands of times as where to lose their virginity. We can see the disappointed expression in Yu Hong’s eyes when Xiao Jun has finishes the sex act like a mechanical activity without any passion. She could not feel the pleasure of sex. That is the root of her melancholia, making her lose the relationship between sex and love. Of course, there is no love between them, so the first unsuccessful sex experience follows her like a shadow, until she meets Zhou Wei.

The film’s on-screen drama is no less tumultuous. Besides Xiao Jun’s violent fight before having sex with Yu Hong, other violent scenes revolve around Yu Hong: Zhou Wei fights with a classmate who tries to have sex with Yu Hong; Zhou Wei slaps Yu Hong’s face three times in the dorm to force her to leave but instead they have make-up sex later.

Suicide attempts are another form of violence in the sex relationship among Yu Hong, Li Ti and Zhou Wei. Li Ti’s suicide is a love suicide, for Zhou Wei. It can be seen from her final conversation with Zhou Wei: “What’s going on with us now?”

In one scene, Li Ti sees Yu Hong standing at the edge of a campus roof.  Li Ti thinks she wants to commit a suicide and rushes to stop her. Therefore Yu Hong’s suicide is aborted. But as Zhou Wei prepares to return to China and leaves Li Ti behind in Germany, Li Ti jumps from a Berlin rooftop and kills herself.

Yu Hong’s suicide attempt is stopped by Li Ti, but Li Ti’s suicide in Berlin is successful. As Huang (2010) states in his article, Li Ti is “belatedly carrying out Yu Hong’s suicide” and “claiming a form of belated victimhood.” The constant combination of sex and violence, as Berry (2011) points out, forms “self-destructive cycles of repetition” (p. 345) in Yu Hong’s life.

Historical Trauma: Tiananmen Square Violence

Besides Yu Hong’s personal trauma, which has resulted in her melancholia, historical trauma is also an important reason under discussion in Summer Palace. The conflation of violence and sex, as Berry (2011) states, is a symptom of the Tiananmen Square Incident.

Freud (2006) also conceptualizes mourning as a reaction “to a loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction that has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal, and so on”. The link made by Freud between the self and “one’s country” or “liberty” is of special importance when examining films that also “juxtapose such entities in their narrative structure” (Bresheeth, 2006). In Summer Palace, Lou Ye imports an important historical event, the Tiananmen Square Incident, as a source of historical trauma to Yu Hong’s melancholia.

According to official Chinese government reports, June Fourth was not a “massacre” but an “incident, disturbance, or turmoil, ” and “political turmoil incited by a very small number of political careerists after a few years of plotting and scheming” (Berry, 2011, p. 300). Even more, some early government reports announced, the military did not a kill a single protester, soldier, or bystander. The government later admitted that “more than 3,000 civilians were wounded and over 200, including 36 college students, were killed” (Berry, 2011, p. 301) due to the mass media pressure.

Before the 21st century, the ways people “imagine, contextualize, and conceive of violence” were influenced by textbooks, which were written by the national history authorities. Because historical studies about the massacre, as Berry (2011) states, are strictly prohibited in China, Chinese people get no chance to see the truth about the Tiananmen Square Incident. That part of history is a blank or wrongly interpreted as violence instead of attempts for democracy. Most Chinese people, including my generation, probably outline a vague image: in the spring of 1989 in Beijing, many groups of wild and crazy people, including some childish young college students fantasized about violence and launched a rebellion, and later were oppressed by the Chinese army.

As the first Chinese atrocity to have played out in real time on television sets across the globe, the Tiananmen Square Massacre has been more closely linked with the visual image in popular memory than any other incident of mass violence in modern China. (Berry, 2011, p. 319)

For a long time, June Fourth was a tragedy sealed in and around Tiananmen Square. How to portray the Tiananmen Square Incident is a central question to reporters, representatives of the media, and filmmakers. This is a conundrum, because the truth of this history is strictly forbidden by the government from being portrayed.

By the end of the twentieth century, June Fourth’s literary heritage had slowly begun to appear in various Chinese films. As Berry (2011) points out, the Tiananmen Square Massacre has invoked numerous explorations through documentary and narrative film:

Many filmmakers use metaphor to release their angst. Narrative filmmakers within China used two different strategies to deal with Tiananmen: directly portraying the incident and its aftermath, as in Stanley Kwan’s Lan Yu, Emily Tang’s Conjugation, and Lou Ye’s Summer Palace; and rendering the incident through allegory, invisibility, and politics of disappearance, as in Yu Benzheng’s Fatal Decision. (Berry, 2011, p. 321)

The first major attempt to provide an in-depth examination of the June Fourth massacre through film is the documentary Sunless Days (Shu Kei,1990). In 90 minutes it records the massacre in a very vague way.

In Summer Palace, Yu Hong sees the demonstrations, the killing and the blood during the Tiananmen Square Incident. She experiences the turmoil during which the people lost their liberty with the government using large numbers of troops to kill its own people, especially young students. This horrible scene leaves an unforgettable experience in Yu Hong’s heart, and makes her more lost and confused.

Unlike Lan Yu (Jinpen Guan, 2001) where June Fourth marks the moment of the lovers’ commitment, Summer Palace records the dissolution of Yu Hong’s relationship. As Berry (2011) elaborates, the Tiananmen Square Incident not only symbolizes the government’s betrayal of its people but also Yu Hong’s betrayal by both her best friend and her lover. Because of this political backdrop depicting Yu Hong’s melancholia, Summer Palace led to its director, Lou Ye, being forbidden from making films for five years.

The indescribable loss that Yu Hong repeatedly uses her body to replace, each time ending up only more alienated, is of course a longing not just for Zhou Wei but also for the joy and purpose that was taken on that early morning in June 1989. Yu Hong’s breakup with Zhou Wei occurred on June Fourth, inextricably linking her lost lover with the violence, violation, and betrayal of the massacre. Thus, Yu Hong’s subsequent downward spiral of sex and nihilistic self-destruction can be seen as the post-traumatic replaying of the lingering fantasies and nightmares of 1989 (Berry, 2011, p. 344).

History Trajectory: Otherness

Lou Ye’s mise-en-scène of turbulent surroundings as a violence metaphor, and his thoughtful intercut of actual footage of the Tiananmen Square protests, offer the most extensive portrayal of the incident on the screen.

While Lan Yu included only a few blurry images of the student running down the street and Conjugation was set entirely in the aftermath of Tiananmen, Summer Palace contains an extensive sequence depicting the 1989 protests and the eventual military crackdown, even featuring disturbing images of PLA [People’s Liberation Army] troops firing on students. At one point, the director borrowed stock news footage of the actual incident, which is intercut into the film. Such frank depiction of the violence of 1989 is unheard of in Chinese cinema, and Lou Ye deserves credit for even attempting such a bold statement. The director is interested, however, not in a crude re-creation of the event itself but in a deeper exploration of the pressures leading up to it, and especially the post-traumatic legacy it left behind. (Berry, 2011, p. 342)

As Bresheeth (2006) emphasizes, the loss that may trigger the melancholia can be a loss dealt with by film. As the sixth generation filmmaker in China who sees the Tiananmen Square Incident (he graduated from Beijing Film Academy in 1989), Lou Ye clearly deeply remembers this history. Therefore, the historical trauma of Yu Hong’s melancholia can be interpreted as Lou Ye’s self historical trauma.

But in the sense of censorship and historical trauma, another film, In the Heat of the Sun (1994) by Jiang Wen, another sixth generation filmmaker, who was born in 1963, should be mentioned.

In the Heat of the Sun is set in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. It is narrated by Ma Xiaojun (played by Xia Yu), a 19-year-old boy. During the Cultural Revolution, most adults were sent to the countryside to “reconstruct themselves” and the school system was nonfunctional. Since Xiaojun and his friends’ parents were off for military purposes, Xiaojun and his friends are free to roam the streets day and night. The story narrates Xiaojun’s relationship with his male friends, and his later crush on Mi Lan (Ning Jing), who loves only Xiaojun’s older friend, Liu Yiku (Gen Le).

This film is significant in its unique perspective of the Cultural Revolution. It vividly depicts the life and confusions of teenagers during the Cultural Revolution, using some neorealism methods to reflect teenagers’ fantasies about violence and sex. Youth and violence are the two themes in this movie, though they both seem very immature.

Jiang Wen portrays his memories of that era in a mellow and dream-like tone, with positive and personal resonances. “Though the movie reflects many typical historical phenomena of the Cultural Revolution, it did not explicitly mention any event during the Cultural Revolution.”(Edy, 2006, p. 213). Because of that ambiguity, In the Heat of the Sun became the only movie to pass the political censor in the 1990s.

Unlike Jiang Wen, who makes the Cultural Revolution era part of a larger historical backdrop, Lou Ye directly depicts the historical events. Born in 1965, he grew up around the political environment of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Since Lou Ye’s childhood was experienced during the Cultural Revolution period, he might have some vague memories about the Cultural Revolution or have heard a lot from his parents.

It’s hard for us to find the track of the Cultural Revolution trauma in Summer Palace, but there are historical political issues involved in this movie. We can see in the beginning of the movie some vivid depictions about Tunmen, a border town between North Korea and East China. Tumen is one of the earliest cities opened to the outside world. In the beginning scenes, we can see Chinese people and North Korean people gather together in a noisy flea market where Yu Hong rides on Xiao Jun’s motorcycle happily passing through these people. That’s Lou Ye’s pretty descriptions of then Communist party leader Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Open Policy in the 1980s in China. It shows his positive compliment to this political policy.

Border Crossing: Healing Trauma

In this movie, there are two different levels of border crossing: Yu Hong’s crossing into different provinces in China and Zhou Wei’s crossing from China to Berlin. Both of these border-crossing acts are protagonists’ attempts to cure their trauma.

Border crossing, however, is not only a method of identity searching as in other traditional “border crossing or transnational” movies. Yu Hong’s sex experiences from man to man, and from her hometown to Beijing, to Wuhan and then Chongqing, signify her attempts across China to cure her personal trauma and historical trauma; Zhou Wei and Li Ti escape to Berlin to cure their historical trauma influenced by the Tiananmen Square Incident, but also heal the personal trauma by avoiding the embarrassment of his relationship with Yu Hong and Li Ti as well as his friendship with Li Ti’s boyfriend, Ruo Gu, after his betrayal of Yu Hong and Ruo Gu.

Just a few hours before Li Ti takes her own life, she walks the streets of Berlin with Zhou Wei and Ruo Gu, and they encounter a festive street fair and parade. As they stroll down the avenue, they see a group of protesters carrying a massive political banner sporting the iconic profiles of Marx, Lenin, and Mao, the specters of the socialist world they tried to escape. And indeed, in the end, none of them does escape: Li Ti kills herself and both Zhou Wei and Ruo Gu return to China. (Huang, 2010, p. 397)

Eventually, however, there is no ultimate cure for melancholia and historical trauma (Lee, 2012). Lou Ye uses Summer Palace as a title to describe the pretty image of the lake inside the Summer Palace where Yu Hong and Zhou Wei go canoeing in the lake. To Yu Hong, that is a short moment of happiness without melancholia. Lou Ye wishes that all Chinese people could overcome the historical trauma and remember only the happy moments. The ending of the movie, however, is a description of Lee (2012)’s theory. Yu Hong’s unsuccessful relationship with Zhou Wei shows that her melancholia caused by her first boyfriend cannot be overcome. With the example of Yu Hong’s melancholia, this movie tells the world that for the Chinese people, especially the younger generations, the historical trauma of Tiananmen Square and the Cultural Revolution is inestimable; the melancholia caused by historical trauma cannot so easily be healed. Lou Ye conveys the message that the Chinese government should learn from the mistakes of history and give Chinese people more freedom, such as people in Berlin were given after the fall of The Wall.

Both historical capitals (Beijing and Berlin) faced major international crises in 1989; the fall of the Berlin Wall succeeded in bringing about what the demonstrators in Beijing had hoped for, a true democratic political revolution. From this perspective, the characters’ journey to Berlin can be seen as a means of retroactively realizing their dreams of liberal democracy and seeing their idealistic revolution succeed (Kluver, 2010, p. 80).

Fleeing to Berlin is an example of Chinese people attempting to solve the historical trauma, even it does not achieve great success. It is the fighting spirit for freedom of the people of Berlin that destroyed the communication barrier between West Berlin and East Berlin. Even though the period of the Berlin Wall (1961-1990) brought the people of Berlin the same historical trauma, as we can see in the demonstration scene in Berlin in this movie on the day before Li Ti’s suicide, the freed environment of demonstration and speech is a way to release their inner anger, or at least not to repress their trauma. In contrast, the Chinese government’s oppression of the memory of Tiananmen Square means that the Chinese people’s historical trauma has been oppressed. Seeing people in Berlin demonstrating freely in the street and expressing themselves, Zhou Wei, Li Ti and Ruo Gu are so happy and eager to join this freedom parade, because in modern China — at least in the movie Summer Palace –demonstration and freedom is repressed. This is a cruel fact, compared to Berlin, as demonstrated by Li Ti’s suicide in Berlin, who uses death to remember her freedom in Berlin.

Lou Ye’s thoughtful use of space and “urban doubling” (Beijing and Berlin) are his attempts to find an answer for Beijing’s future or the right attitude to face history, as Berry (2010) emphasizes, it reveals the “deep anguish and contradictions haunting diasporic dreams” (p. 347) that follow historical trauma.


Yu Hong’s diary narrations during the lovemaking scene with her true lover Zhou Wei is a stage of self-fixated melancholia; Yu Hong’s wild sex affairs with other men she does not love after leaving Zhou Wei, but with diary narrations, is a conflation process of self-damaging and self-fixated melancholia. Yu Hong’s trauma is a combination of both personal psychological trauma from her unsuccessful sex experience and love relationship, and historical trauma from the Tiananmen Square Incident.

Since the loss of one’s country never ends, the historical trauma can never be removed from people’s memories. The loss of one’s country or liberty is different from death. Bresheeth (2006) says, after great loss, the country still exists, gets fixated and restores itself. It is therefore necessary for people to find a way to cure the trauma. Memory is the root cause of trauma, Freud (1992) tells us, but is also the source of its resolution. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he outlines how the pain of reliving the events leading to the trauma may in turn bring gradual return to the normality of the pleasure principle.

Asia film studies, according to Higbee & Lim (2010), parallels the trajectories and dynamics of transnational cinema: while border-crossing is the element of both transnational cinema and its studies and borders have become “heavily policed” (p. 17) and come with a tag which can easily neglect the importance of transnationality.