Commissioned by Shanghai’s 2010 World Expo – a flummoxing irony given the disquieting portrayals of China in his films – Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew was a sweeping, layered and ambitious portrayal of the complex, dynamic and fascinating city of Shanghai, covering, over an expansive time frame, its tumultuous past, evolving fortunes, diverse facets and variegated shades. In a way, therefore, it was a companion piece to his magisterial quasi-documentary 24 City – in that, both provided broader sociopolitical commentaries using microcosmic approaches and talking head interviews. The docu obliquely covered large swathes of Shanghai’s history – from the 1982 Nanjing Treaty which established it as a throbbing port city to the the epoch-making Cultural Revolution, from the erstwhile dominance of gangster classes to massive wealth readjustments, from purges by the Kuomintang nationalists in the pre-Communist era to the exodus to Hong Kong and Taiwan post the advent of Communism, and, of course, the spectacular skyscraper filled metropolis of today with a heady underbelly. Suffice it to say, it’s a demanding watch, and necessitates historical and geopolitical awareness. The compellingly narrated interviews ranged from political to personal, dramatic to banal, and dispassionate to emotional, and were filled with amused chuckles, humour, nostalgic evocations, bitterness, pathos and resignation. They were juxtaposed with stunning (albeit, desolate) vistas of the city, including shots of Zhao Tao silently observing the life around her with searching glances, and were accompanied by an elegiac score. Cinema, interestingly, constituted a stirring element with extensive references (and excerpts) ranging from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai to Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild, and from Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town to Antonioni’s Chung Kuo, China and a lot more.
Director: Jia Zhangke
Genre: Documentary/Political History