Commissioned for the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, Jia Zhang-ke’s I Wish I knew is, at its most basic level, an interview-heavy portrait of China’s largest city, its people and their tumultuous relationship with history. But it’s also intimately concerned with the experience of the exile, the visual exploration of the contemporary city and the question of the cinematic representation of lived experience. Less thematically simple than the director’s previous work and less concerned with multi-hued visual pleasure (Yu Likwai’s digital cinematography, comprised primarily of grays, whites, and browns, is the exact opposite of his colorful work in The World, though it’s certainly not without its own stark splendor), Jia’s latest is arguably both his most abstract and his most straightforward work as well as the one with the longest historical reach.
Intercutting a series of interviews with Shanghai residents past and present with wordless footage of the modern city, clips of films set in Shanghai, and the occasional explanatory intertitle, I Wish I knew is a rich, multi-faceted city film that challenges viewers to make sense of the various scraps that the filmmaker artfully arranges for our consideration. For a director concerned with both the contemporary transformation of China and the country’s long and tumultuous history, Shanghai is in many ways the ideal city for dissection: It’s both the symbol of Chinese modernization (with its ultra-sleek skyline which the director insists on filming in gloomy grays), and the locus of considerable historical turbulence (dating back, we’re told via intertitle, at least to 1842 when the Nanjing Treaty forced the city open to British trade), twin aspects explored in aesthetically and conceptually diverse ways by the director.
At the heart of the film are the interviews with a sampling of both Shanghainese and displaced exiles who fled the city for either Hong Kong or Taiwan during the Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese Civil War, and the Cultural Revolution. (Unlike the mixture of “real” and staged interrogations in Jia’s 2008 film, 24 City, these interviews all appear to be genuine, i.e. not scripted and shot with actors.) Comprised primarily of the older generation, the subjects tell stories that follow a remarkably similar pattern: an upheaval in their personal life brought about by historical events, often accompanied by forced emigration, and almost always involving the untimely death of a parent. One man relates how he was present when his father, an anti-nationalist activist in the 1930s, was assassinated by Chiang Kai-shek’s men during an automobile outing. The son recalls how thugs ambushed the car, how he himself passed out, and how, when waking up, his dead father was lying on top of him. Even more harrowing, and more illustrative of the brutality of all factions in modern Chinese history, are the recollections of a man whose mother and whose sister’s boyfriend both committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution. While the former was harassed as being an anti-revolutionary, the latter was condemned as an ultra-radical Red Guard member. No matter which side of the political spectrum one represented, any deviation from the party line proved fatal. But not all the stories are so bleak. One man explains how he went from being broke to making a fortune in securities trading, one of the winners in China’s embrace of capitalist enterprise. Similarly, the film’s only young subject, a man born in 1982, details how the royalties from a novel he wrote allowed him to purchase a racecar and pursue his dream of competitive driving.
Among the dozen or so men and women Jia interviews are a disproportionate number of people involved in varying degrees with the film industry, a fact that makes I Wish I Knew something of a cinephile’s delight. Hou Hsiao-hsien shows up to explain how political turmoil in Shanghai forced him to shoot his 1998 film Flowers of Shanghai in his native Taiwan. Both the star of Fei Mu’s 1948 classic Spring in a Small Town and the director’s daughter recall the movie’s initially cool reception and the filmmaker’s subsequent exile to Hong Kong. A man who served as Michelangelo Antonioni’s assistant on the Italian director’s 1972 documentary Chung Kuo, Cina details his subsequent arrest when the finished film proved less than flattering in its depiction of Mao’s China. Intercut with these reminiscences is footage from the handful of films under discussion. Mostly these glimpses (which include work by such notables as Wong Kar-wai and Xie Jin, in addition to Hou, Fei, and Antonioni) serve more to commemorate the transmutation of Shanghainese life into art rather than analyze the adaptation. Still, seeing the process in action, most notably in the case of director Wang Toon, whose specific memories as related in his interview are subsequently glimpsed in fictional form in his movie Red Persimmon, forcefully communicates the power of the film image to both fix and understand history.
Of course, those two imperatives have long been at the heart of Jia Zhang-ke’s cinematic project—after 2000’s epic, decade-spanning Platform, largely focusing both on contemporary history-in-the-making and the historical amnesia of the younger generation who are nonetheless profoundly affected by the past. Of particular interest to Jia have always been those intersection points where history has been effaced either by massive contemporizing state projects (Still Life) or by a simulacrum of reality (The World). In contemporary Shanghai, Jia has located such a nexus of past and future and, predictably, he’s more interested in the rubble than the glamour. (Or in shots that contrast the two, such as a series of views of half-demolished buildings in the foreground with the city’s skyline visible through the fog in the distance.) Although he takes in Shanghai’s landmarks (including the Expo pavilion, no doubt a provision of his commission), he often keeps his distance from the center of the city, shooting from across the Suzhou River or on boats sailing on the water, taking in skies that are as perpetually gray as the buildings, and only occasionally venturing onto crowded downtown streets.
In many of these shots, Jia employs his regular actress Zhao Tao as a visual foil, filming her as she walks silently through construction sites or empty streets, a pensive, slightly melancholy air on her face. Apart from offering a pleasing foreground image in which to set off the beautiful rubble of the city’s hidden corridors, Zhao’s presence allows us to view these scenes as abstractions of Jia’s body of work. Since most of the director’s films make prominent use of shots of his star set off against evocative, symbolic, if nonetheless “real” backgrounds, then the Zhao sequences in the current work play something like a Jia movie deprived of narrative content, a “still life” boiled down to its essence. If the film clips glimpsed throughout I Wish I Knew represent varied attempts to come to terms with Chinese history, then Jia offers his own filmed fragments which update these efforts (as well as his own) by focusing strictly on the present, even as the remnants of the past abound. Forcefully, if casually, juxtaposed with the testimony of Shanghai’s denizens, these startling images reveal the city that will henceforth be the domain of people like the young racecar-driving novelist but which still bears the traces of the turbulent past recalled by the film’s elderly subjects, all of whom found themselves displaced by the forces of a history which seems to terminate in the establishment of the contemporary capitalist megalopolis.
I Wish I Knew will play on February 18, 20, and 21 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.