Two years ago, Shanghai hosted the World’s Fair Expo and to help with some publicity and celebrate the historic moment, film-maker Jia Zhang-ke was commissioned to create a film commemorating the eventful year and consolidate some of the city’s turbulent past. What resulted was I Wish I Knew, a documentary spanning time and place to create a map of one of China’s most famous cities.
During the film, a number of famous Shanghainese are interviewed and these insightful and personal stories sit alongside a lyrical, very loosely narrative journey of a young woman through the city in 2009 and 2010. Along the way we see the changing landscape of the city and the political, social and cultural events that have led up to the upcoming Expo.
The most positive aspect of this film is the interviewees themselves: they are truly illuminating and they seem to truly love Shanghai despite its troubled history and their often poignant stories of life during the Cultural Revolution and before. Many are children of the most important figures in the city’s history, such as Du Meiru, the daughter of Du Yuesheng, a famous gang leader in the 1920s, and Yang Xiaofu, the son of Yang Xingfu, a founder of China’s civil rights movement and economist who was assassinated in 1933. Zhang-ke never imposes questions about the city, even though the landscape itself – its demolition and remoulding into a modern high-rise metropolis – is as much of an important character as the people interviewed. Instead, the anecdotes and histories offered by the interviewees colours the city in: at the beginning of the film Shanghai seems grey and stripped of vibrancy but as the film progresses and the people become slightly more positive in tone, colour seems to seep into the landscape, culminating in shots of the Expo site in all its fabulous modernity, blue skies and ever-productive workers.
It is unfortunate then that this documentary is so frustrating to watch as a whole. Firstly, Zhang-ke’s directing attempts to be artful to the point of being pretentious. Some interviewees are framed in ways that are distracting from what they are saying. A man who worked with Antonioni while he worked on a documentary on China (whose name unfortunately escapes me at this point) is filmed in a tea house through traditional windows, talking of censorship, and of stereotyping. Zhang-ke did not need to frame him in this manner to enhance his point about Antonioni’s depiction of Chinese people: the man just had to talk. Then there are the shots of a nameless young woman traversing the streets of Shanghai. What is her function, exactly? I could argue that her presence in the film represents that of an absorber of experiences: as she walks around, and more stories are added to the film’s canon she is meant to be enlightened, eventually leading her to the Expo and a new Shanghai. I could also argue that her presence gives a loose narrative of a wanderer who encounters the many faces of Shanghai, tying together the highly contrasting images of the city that Zhang-ke presents. But I cannot fathom it entirely: to my mind she is not necessary in developing a sense of what Shanghai was and now is, and appears relatively infrequently in the course of the two hours. Perhaps this is further evidence of Zhang-ke’s attempt to make I Wish I Knew more artistic than it truly needs to be.
But the biggest problem, to my mind, is the lack of thematic and temporal focus that this film presents. We are given a whole host of city images, which we can interpret as we please, with some guidance from people who lived through historical events. However, as the film progresses there is an increasing focus on the films of Shanghai and on other film-makers themselves. As interesting as the stories of Wang Toon and Hou Hsiao-Hsien are, they don’t seem to sit quite rightly with the stories of politics and societal upheaval during the cultural revolution. Zhang-ke includes images of films from this period and their strong, pro-Communist stance, including Spring in a Small Town, widely regarded as one of China’s greatest films as well as clips from Wong Kar-Wai. Cinema does, of course, have a massive part to play in documenting and reflecting the cultural and societal changes of the last 100 or so years, but its inclusion here turns I Wish I Knew into a different beast, a film about film, for a good little while. Then it once again abandons this in favour of stories about economics, migration and education in the latter-day.
This movement to the present leaves me with one final gripe about this film. For the most part, the film focuses on the past and often talks about the Maoist period, the politics and economics of the time and the geography of Shanghai but there is a rather inexplicable shift from the end of the Cultural Revolution to the late 80s and a small economic boom (at least for the sole man who represents this period of time). It then moves to the 2000s and the phenomenon of Han Han, the revered blogger, writer and rally driver. As much as Han Han is interesting and witty – despite being dragged into the middle of a racecourse by Zhang-ke in a piece of obvious imagery – it leaves you wondering how the leap was made. Doesn’t this shift seem to say that between the late 80s and now Han Han is the only good or productive person Shanghai could muster? Isn’t this a diminishing of the achievements of Shanghai in overcoming great hardship from both internal and external forces that Zhang-ke has attempted to establish through the rest of the film?
It must be said that despite these apparent failings, I Wish I Knew is actually very interesting for anyone wanting to know more about Shanghai’s history from the perspective of people who have lived through its monumental cultural changes. As a final celebration of Shanghai’s modern vision, Zhang-ke redeems himself with shots of people riding the train, using their mobile phones and being integrated into modernity, a symbol of the city’s forward-thinking ideology.