I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhangke, 2010)

There’s a great deal of travel by water in Jia Zhangke’s documentary I Wish I Knew—much of it around Shanghai’s port area and on the city’s Suzhou River. This is a regular motif in the films of a director who, since the late ’90s, has been foremost in Chinese cinema in mapping his nation’s relentless social and economic flux. But “flux” understates what is at stake in I Wish I Knew, which looks back at Shanghai’s history and offers a picture of drastic, often violent change that has left a legacy of uncertainty alluded to in the film’s English title—taken from the American ballad crooned in one scene by a dapper elderly gent.

Now getting its first U.S. theatrical release, the film—commissioned by Shanghai’s 2010 World Expo (and shown here in the 2011 Film Comment Selects)—is now seen in a 118-minute director’s cut some 20 minutes shorter than the version screened in Un Certain Regard in Cannes in 2010. The film came two years after Jia’s documentary-fiction hybrid 24 City, and is on the surface a more conventional work: it features images of Shanghai and its street life in different decades, alongside clips from films relating to its history. There are also occasional brief sequences in which Zhao Tao, Jia’s partner and regular lead actress, is dressed in white and looking distinctly anxious as she wanders round windblown cityscapes—and, near the end, the ghostly deserted avenue of the Expo site under construction—as if obscurely embodying the sentiment expressed in the film’s title. Above all, the film is built around 18 interviews with mostly elderly individuals, whose own experiences reveal different aspects of Shanghai’s history.

You can learn much about Shanghai and broader 20th-century Chinese history from Jia’s film, although it probably helps to know a little already. A caption early on tells us about the Nanjing Treaty of 1842 between China and Britain and the establishment of the concessions that made Shanghai an economically thriving international port and which, we’re told, also brought about a boom in criminal gangs. But the key moment repeatedly alluded to in the film is May 27 of 1949, when the Communist army entered the city and seized control from the Nationalist Kuomintang army–a scene we briefly see recreated with extras on a modern Shanghai film set and celebrated in triumphalist propaganda style in the 1959 film, Battle of Shanghai. That moment triggered a mass exodus to Hong Kong and Taiwan, precipitating eventual returns to Shanghai or displacements to various locations in South-East Asia. This seismic shift–along with the later social shock of the Cultural Revolution–is key to many of the film’s various narrations.

Many of Jia’s interviewees recall the upheavals and traumas of the past with a sometimes amused calm, though the calm may be skin deep. A man named Yang Xiao-fo remembers seeing his father shot in his car on the orders of Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek, and falling on his son, then 14. Zhang Yuan-sun, the dapper bow-tied balladeer who appears in a senior citizens’ dance hall, recalls the wealth of his amateur opera singer father, the first man to have air conditioning in China in the 1930s, and of his industrialist grandfather, a big shot in pickles and monosodium glutamate. When the Red Guards came for Zhang’s father in the Cultural Revolution, they took everything, except for his fine bamboo bed.

A woman named Wang Pei-ming remembers her trade unionist father Wang Xiao-he being tried by the Kuomintang on a charge of destroying a power generator. She only knows him from newspaper photos, she says, as he died shortly before she was born in 1948. Those photos, glimpsed here, are quite stunning, showing a handsome young man with a defiant smile in the hands of his captors—followed by his body on the ground. Wang Pei-ming’s mother became suicidally depressed—then, when the Communists marched down Nanjing Road in 1949, she was convinced that her husband had returned.

Some stories reveal a long-forgotten Shanghai of distant social mores. Du Mei-ru remembers her father Du Yue-sheng, a powerful gangster who built himself up from nothing, having buried his own father in a mat. She also tells of a woman who married into a gang to become the wife of a man already dead, among other stories of rich men with multiple wives and sometimes concubines, and some fonder, complicated accounts of formal matchmaking.

One woman, Huang Bao-mei, tells a breezy story of her career as a Communist model worker in the textile industry, who got to sit next to Chairman Mao at the opera and then played herself in a 1958 film about her life. Other people’s tales, however, reveal drastic and devastating reversals of fortune. Wei Ran talks about his mother, who worked in a photo studio before getting into movies as an actress; she was the celebrated Shangguan Yunzhu, starring in films including Xie Jin’s 1964 classic Two Stage Sisters, before experiencing three unhappy marriages, falling foul of the Cultural Revolution, and killing herself in 1968 after being branded a counter-revolutionary.

Several movie people are interviewed, including singer-actress Rebecca Pan, who appeared in Days of Being Wild by Wong Kar-wai. The Shanghai-born director’s 1990 film is one of a number of works excerpted, along with Xie Jin’s Huang Bao-mei film, Fei Mu’s 1948 Spring in a Small Town, and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1998 Flowers of Shanghai. Taiwanese director Hou appears briefly, offering a few thoughts on the Shanghai “flower houses” or brothels depicted in his film, but also admitting that before he made it, he knew next to nothing about the city—which may come as some reassurance to viewers who feel engulfed by this film’s flood of history.

But perhaps the most revealing cinema story here comes from an Italian film—Antonioni’s 1972 documentary Chung Kuo, China. One Zhu Qian-sheng remembers being sent by officials to work with the Italian director, only to wonder why he was filming images of “backwardness,” as Zhu calls it. He was puzzled to realize that Antonioni saw China differently, delighting in images that Zhu felt didn’t do the nation credit: “He thought everything was fine—our standards are so different.” Zhu duly complained, and history proved him right to be anxious; two years later, he was arrested for working on a film considered to be anti-Chinese and counter-revolutionary. “Even now,” Zhu says, “I have no idea what Antonioni filmed . . . I’ve never seen the film.” Jia Zhangke himself, of course, isn’t averse to filming images that don’t paint pretty pictures: like shots of construction workers in slow motion, white-faced from dust and heaving cement sacks, as if bodily hauling the symbolic weight of the city’s history.

I Wish I Knew can be confusing in its flitting between times and locales. One jump takes us from a barren stretch of the Suzhou River and Shanghai’s crumbling industrial waterfront in 1999 to glossier vistas of the developed city in 2009—yet at the start of the film, we’ve seen equally desolate images of the waterfront in that later year. Certainly, Jia, despite the Expo commission, seems only to pay lip service to the idea of an official attractive view of the city, and tourism itself doesn’t come across appealingly: he cuts from the grandeur of a 19th-century photo of Yuyuan Garden to the locale today, crammed with milling visitors. We also see ferry passengers in Taiwan, and a puzzling jump from Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour back to Shanghai in 2010—and every now and then, Zhao Tao in one place or another, looking understandably lost. But this jigsaw flavor somehow fits the complexity of the stories told, which include tales of numerous, often chaotic departures from Shanghai to Taiwan (that perpetual thorn in the Chinese government’s side), Hong Kong or even Paris. Barbara Fei, daughter of Fei Mu, director of Spring in a Small Town, remembers her father leaving for Beijing in 1949, while the rest of her family went to Hong Kong—“everything happened in a lawless, disorganized way”—before she and her siblings made their way back to Shanghai “like a bunch of carrots tied together.”

Meanwhile, Jia captures a certain amount of routine Shanghai life, although—beyond images of people standing on bridges and travelling by water—little here seems absolutely specific to this city. An elderly woman in a café cheerfully beckons the camera to come and film, and there’s a nice, if somewhat facile, juxtaposition: a man born in the early ’50s remembers the tough kids of his childhood and Jia cuts to a tiny, skinny little tyke today, flexing his muscles and yelling, “Who wants to fight?”, trying on his masculinity like Daddy’s big shoes. And as if to sound the opening note that money has always ruled Shanghai’s fortunes, and still does, the film begins with a sly bit of business–the sound of a lion roaring and a man polishing the bronze lion statues outside the Shanghai Bank of Communication.

Sure enough, when the interviews turn to modern Shanghai at the end of the film, it’s finance that roars loudest—a man named Yang Hua-ding remembers being broke until he tried his hand at speculating in securities and ended up carrying his winnings around in suitcases. The youngest interviewee, Han Han, is a novelist, media star, and racecar driver, who remembers how the success of his first book finally got him the car he craved. It’s not long before we’re given a panoramic vista of the city from the 100th floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center. But the film closes with images of people who might work in such places: sleepy subway commuters, whether half-awake in the morning or exhausted from a day’s work. It’s suggestive not so much of a bustling, economically thriving city, but of fatigue, drudgery, and a place that has never found its rest. Ending a minor but fascinating film in Jia’s provocative oeuvre, the images of these sleepers are a prelude to the other troubled dreams of China (A Touch of SinMountains May DepartAsh Is the Purest White) that he has made since.

Jonathan Romney is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes the Film of the Week column. He is a member of the London Film Critics Circle.