This is Shanghai, but not the glass and steel megapolis Chinese state media tries to project. It is a city of strife and toil—and immigrants from throughout the assorted Chinas. Independent Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke creates a multi-faceted portrait of the Mainland’s go-go financial capital that is part city-symphony and part oral history. Ten years after its initial screenings, Jia’s thoughtful ode to Shanghai finally gets a proper American release when I Wish I Knew opens this Friday in New York, at the Metrograph.
Technically, I Wish I Knew was commissioned to commemorate the Shanghai World Expo, but you can tell Jia will not be towing a party line when his first interview subject’s reminiscences primarily focus on juvenile street gangs and the hardships his family endured during the Cultural Revolution. He will return to the Gang of Four’s institutionalized madness later in the film, at even greater length.
Indeed, Jia is drawn to somewhat marginalized figures, like the daughter of one of Shanghai’s most notorious gangsters. Besides the Cultural Revolution, the Japanese occupation and Taiwan’s White Terror also loom large in the film. Although this is technically a film about Shanghai, there is clearly a sense the mega-city is intrinsically linked to Hong Kong and Taipei, which explains why Beijing is cracking down so hard on Hong Kong and why the Taiwan’s recent independence-affirming election induced a panic attack.
In between interview segments, Jia follows his wife and muse Zhao Tao as she strolls through the city, but instead of the glitzy shopping district, their perambulations mostly take us through docks, bridges, and post-industrial districts. You can tell the disparities of Shanghai just from Jia’s exterior shots.
Huang Baomei is the exception that proves the rule. The former “model worker” was hailed by Mao and even starred as herself in a propaganda film based on her life. Yet, when Jia follows her back to the textile factory where she labored her entire life, there is nothing left of the state enterprise but rubble and rubbish.
It is safe to describe I Wish I Knew as a meditative film that unfolds at a deliberate pace. However, it is fully loaded with striking images and there are a number of insights observant viewers may glean from it. It is not as structured as Jia’s previous film, 24 City, but thematically they are not so very different. Highly recommended for attentive audiences, I Wish I Knew opens this Friday (1/24) in New York, at the Metrograph.