Watching a film about Shanghai’s explosive urban metamorphosis from a Paris movie theater is akin to watching daredevil trapeze artists risk their lives from an incredibly comfortable wheelchair. While they zip through the air with infinite energy and confidence, you enjoy cozy paralysis. Two cities could not be more different: Paris, stunningly beautiful, clinging to yesterday with all the Old World nostalgia tourist dollars can buy, and Shanghai, polluted and aesthetically chaotic, but dazzling for its capacity to take a wrecking ball to the past. For Jia Zhang-ke, a filmmaker so obsessed with examining the alienation of contemporary Chinese citizens, lost in an amorphous, ever-changing political narrative, Shanghai seems an ideal subject for a documentary exploring how the personal and political intertwine.
I Wish I Knew compiles ten of interviews with current or former Shanghainese, alternating between their stories and daunting images of China’s biggest boomtown. Most interviews deal with some form of loss which is, more often than not, traumatic. In one poignant moment, a woman tells of her father’s assassination by the Kuomintang before her birth, stating that she has never known her father aside from the newspaper photos published at the time of his execution. The film then cuts to said images. The metaphor for the film, and for Jia Zhang-ke’s work in general, becomes clear: images are all we have to fill the traumatic ruptures left behind by historic upheaval. And when there are no images to fill the gap, you can either import them, or you can make them up.
In the case of I Wish I Knew, Jia often splices images from the past: excerpts from a Maoist propaganda film, then-and-now images of the Shanghai teashop originally filmed in Antonioni’s all but forgotten 1972 documentary Chung Kuo, or Jia’s own footage of the banks of the Huangpu River in 1999, juxtaposed with the same stretch of land today, monstrous in its sublime newness. And yet, as powerful as these moments are, I Wish… is ultimately underwhelming.
Commissioned by the politburo for the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, one feels the shackles of State approval and an imperative to appeal to the masses. Lacking here is the strong formal stance for which Jia Zhang-ke has come to be known. For instance, in 24 City, his last major foray into the documentary genre, Jia explores the social and political impact of a factory’s demolition and the subsequent construction of luxury condominiums on the same site. Here, he mixes “fake” interviews, played by well-known Chinese actors, with “real” interviews of factory personnel, treating them no differently. The result is that the fictional sublimates the real, elevating the lowliest testimonial to high tragedy. In other words, the film recognizes all political discourse – even “objective” statements, straight from the worker’s mouth – as narrative. One is reminded of the Brechtian idea of “epic theatre” where one is, so to speak, “alienated” from the play to see the fictional text as text. The difference here is that Jia awakens the spectator to see documentary “truth” (that romantic idea where scientifically recorded images equal objective cinema vérité) also as text. He awakens us to see the truth in fiction – and, consequently, the fiction of Truth. If History can only ever exist as narrative, 24 City recognizes the haziness of truth and the necessity for new fictions.
After so many years of propaganda in China, where Communism was heralded as the only Truth possible, it would make sense that trying to discern what images to trust should suddenly appear complicated. It is easy to forget that the People’s Republic of China is only 60 years old and, like any new republic with a new ideology, it has spent a good part of this creating a new set of myths and a revolutionary destiny. This film feels like it could only come out of a country looking for a new Real, taking stock of its present after decades of state-sponsored history lessons, now struggling to see through discourse.
Jia has won his reputation among groupie film reviewers (myself included) through the formal beauty of his work: his long, ponderous takes, his talent for creating atmospheres leaden with resignation and his ability for to visually trap his characters in the sticky amber of indecision. Unfortunately, these stylistic traits are missing in I Wish I Knew which, moreover, feels strangely naïve and lacking the historiographic complexity of his previous documentary. With clean visuals and plenty of soft lighting, stylish framing and tear-jerking stories, the end result is above average PBS. Jia’s panic at the fleeting nature of Shanghai’s topography and desire to save a few oral relics before the next tsunami of progress sweeps it all away, is certainly understandable, if not noble. But, I would like to invite him – and anyone who is afraid of what unbridled capitalism can do to an urban space – to Paris. Perhaps it might comfort him to know that, even the most chaotic and ambitious cities eventually become nice, quiet museums.