I Wish I Knew
China, 2010, colour, 2.35:1, 136 mins.
Director: Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯.
Documentary on Shanghai looks handsome but isn’t revelatory or dramatic enough to sustain 2¼ hours.
Eighteen people connected with Shanghai, including eight filmmakers, provide personal reminiscences on the city’s history, people and culture.
Though the Chinese title of this documentary by Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯 roughly means “Shanghai Stories”, the English title sums up its blurry focus much better. In the same way as in two of Jia’s previous documentaries (24 City 二十四城记, 2008; Useless 无用, 2007), there’s a sense in I Wish I Knew 上海传奇 of the director not having many ideas himself on his subject and just serving up familiar material or letting the camera roll on during interviews. Many of the latter are way too discursive and could easily be trimmed, helping to bring the running time down to a more sustainable 110 minutes max. And what is especially noticeable is that some of the documentary’s best material comes from the interviews with filmmakers: it’s a society in which Jia is clearly more at home and more knowledgeable.
These interviews, which dominate the second half of the film, will be of some interest to movie buffs, especially as Shanghai was the centre of Mainland film production until the 1950s. Taiwan director Wang Tong 王童 recalls being evacuated from Shanghai by boat in 1949 when his father was still fighting for the Nationalists at the front; onetime model worker Huang Baomei 黄宝妹 is seen playing herself in clips from the 1958 biopic by Xie Jin 谢晋; actress Wei Wei 韦伟 talks about working on the legendary Spring in a Small Town 小城之春, by Fei Mu 费穆, in 1948; and Shanghai-born actress Pan Dihua 潘迪华, seen in Days of Being Wild 阿飞正传 (1990), still summons up a long-past era of Shanghai grandes dames. But where is Shanghai’s most famous emigre son, Wang Jiawei 王家卫 [Wong Kar-wai] himself? And does Taiwan’s Hou Xiaoxian 侯孝贤 briefly talking about his Flowers of Shanghai 海上花 (1998) have a real place in Jia’s documentary? (Hou’s connection is only tangential: though born on the Mainland, he did not grow up in Shanghai.)
Though Shanghai was the centre of Mainland film production from the 1920s to 1950s, the bias towards filmmaker interviews unbalances the docuemntary. Though the early interviewees – painter Chen Danqing 陈丹青 on growing up amid street gangs during the 1950s, Yang Xiaofo 杨小佛 witnessing his father’s 1933 assassination by KMT gangsters, Du Meiru 杜美如 on her father Du Yuesheng 杜月笙, the city’s most famous pre-PRC gangster – rapidly sketch in some historical and social background, it’s not until two hours in that Jia interviews anyone from the financial world (T-bond trader Yang Huaiding 杨怀定), one of the city’s economic tentpoles.
The film’s hit-and-miss structure is mitigated by its best quality: the superbly evocative widescreen photography of Shanghai in all its contradictions and different faces by regular Hong Kong d.p. Yu Liwei 余力为. Occasional shots of Jia’s favourite actress Zhao Tao 赵涛 wandering round the city as “an eternally wandering soul” (and even managing to get wet in a clingy white T-shirt) should have been left on the cutting-room floor.
Presented by Shanghai Film Group (CN), Xstream Pictures (CN), NCU Group (CN), Star Art Vision (CN), Bojie Media (CN). Produced by Xstream Pictures (CN).
Script: Jia Zhangke. Photography: Yu Liwei. Editing: Zhang Jia. Music: Lin Qiang [Lim Giong]. Art direction: Zhang Xiaobing. Sound: Zhang Yang.
Cast: Zhao Tao (woman in white), Lin Qiang [Lim Giong].
Interviewees: Chen Danqing, Yang Xiaofo, Zhang Yuansun, Du Meiru, Wang Peimin, Wang Tong, Chang Lingyun, Li Jiatong, Zhang Xinyi, Hou Xiaoxian, Zhu Qiansheng, Huang Baomei, Wei Ran, Wei Wei, Fei Mingyi, Pan Dihua, Yang Huaiding, Han Han.
Interviewer: Lin Xudong.
Premiere: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), 16 May 2010.
Release: China, 2 Jul 2010.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 18 May 2010.)