Published Sep 26, 2010Known mostly for critically acclaimed features such as Still Life and 24 City, Jia Zhangke's fluid documentary about the culture, history and space of Shanghai before, during and after the 1949 Chinese Revolution remains consistent with themes from his earlier works, focusing on changed spaces and architecture juxtaposed with generational ideological differences. While commissioned for the 2010 Shanghai World's fair, I Wish I Knew speaks to changing times and voices on the verge of firsthand extinction, thematically expanding its scope beyond geographic love letter.
Organized through repetition in structure and historical linearity, this edifying guide to evolving ethos shows actress Tao Zhao walking through a public space — sometimes dilapidated, sometimes flourishing — only to cut to an extended interview with a filmmaker, actor or the child of a gang member or counter-revolutionary. These interviews form the bulk of the film, while speakers talk of their fathers taking multiple wives or being sentenced to death for political difference, noting intentions to flee to Hong Kong or Taiwan when unwanted pregnancies or military conflicts erupted in Shanghai's tumultuous history.
Once relevant film clips from works by Wang Bing, Wang Toon, Wong Kar-Wai and Antonioni provide an artistic context, often focusing on Communist ideologue within the text of the piece being shown. A man recounts working as Antonioni's tour guide when he was shooting his 1972 documentary on China, only to wind up arrested and denounced for allowing the famed director to shoot negative, antiquated elements of their culture.
Each story is personal and subjective, recounted by an individual from their perspective, but the melding of narration with geographic context and observational footage often exaggerates the irony or ire of any given anecdote. Acknowledging the pseudo-bribing of citizens with MSG and mosquito repellent for attending propaganda events, an older man speaks of his father's successes in manufacturing MSG independent of Japan, which then cuts to an image of Zhao walking through the ruins of a long defunct factory, leaving us to consider how the two things relate.
This style is consistent throughout, albeit presented with differing degrees of distain or approval, allowing each sequence to breathe on its own despite being a part of a larger picture of past struggles versus modern superficiality. (Films We Like)