I Wish I Knew, a 2010 documentary shot in Shanghai, closes with two starkly contrasting views: one from the observation deck of the Shanghai World Financial Center (the highest in the world at the time of filming), the other from a nondescript railcar in transit. These images, both concerned with development, are atmospheric and spatially suggestive, placing the static verticality of the skyscraper against the endless horizontal flux of human movement down below. But they’re also emblematic of Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s filmography, which has over the past two decades continually looked to the future, however hazy and indistinct it might be.
There’s arguably no other option for a filmmaker preoccupied with the question of Chinese identity amid the rapid, sweeping transformations of the late 20th century onward. Jia’s forward-thinking approach is plainly evident in his narrative work: His consensus masterpiece, 2000’s Platform, observes the fractured fortunes of a theater troupe in the years following the Cultural Revolution, while more recent films such as 2015’s Mountains May Depart and last year’s Ash Is Purest White ambitiously span the entirety of the current century, with the former even looking to the year 2025. But such concerns likewise animate his documentaries, which aren’t radical breaks so much as logical extensions of his fiction filmmaking. A commission for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, I Wish I Knew first premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it ran 138 minutes, but is only now, a full decade later, coming to U.S. theaters in a shortened “director’s cut.”
For the most part, I Wish I Knew collects talking-heads interviews with various people who recall personal memories attached to the city. Jia occasionally intercuts these with snippets of informational text (e.g., about the Sino-British Treaty of Nanjing, which cemented Shanghai’s status as a major port city and center of trade and commerce), and brief interludes (reminiscent of 2006’s Still Life) centered on Zhao Tao, the director’s partner and longtime artistic collaborator, who wanders the city’s sundry construction sites. But throughout, the focus remains squarely on his subjects’ compelling testimonies. Unlike in the 2008 quasi-documentary 24 City, where Jia mixed real and acted interviews with Chengdu factory workers, the director plays things straight here, allowing this set of 18 or so reminisces to gradually recreate a Shanghai of memory.
Such an approach may seem unusually straightforward, even conventional for a filmmaker of Jia’s festival-feted ambition. But it’s in his canny choice of subjects that I Wish I Knew reveals itself to be an expansive exploration of Shanghai as a cultural center shaken by converging historical forces. It’s significant that many of the interviewees are either artists (directors, actors, writers) or related to one. In illustrating the crucial conflict between the Communist Party and the Kuomintang, for instance, which led scores of families to set sail for Taiwan via Shanghai, Jia incorporates the testimony of Taiwanese director Wang Toon, who later dramatized his own family’s departure in Red Persimmon (1997). More recognizable faces include Taiwanese New Wave master Hou Hsiao-hsien, who discusses his acclaimed 1998 feature Flowers Of Shanghai, and Rebecca Pan of Wong Kar-wai’s Days Of Being Wild, who tells of her Shanghainese origins and eventual move to Hong Kong.
Most of the film’s subjects are émigrés. This is no accident. Nor is it incidental that Jia incorporates footage from both Hong Kong and Taiwan circa 2009. It would be reductive to conclude that he’s merely cataloging the artistic talent that was effectively lost or displaced as a result of the nation’s various civil conflicts, but it’s clear that I Wish I Knew is concerned, foremost, with Shanghai’s—and by extension China’s—cultural inheritance. Accordingly, I Wish I Knew also traces the parallel artistic legacy of the Communist Party. Of particular interest are conversations on director Fei Mu, who made the 1948 Chinese classic Spring In A Small Town but was later criticized by the Party for his supposed decadence and non-conformance to leftist values. His daughter Barbara tells of the ignominious circumstances of his departure to Hong Kong, where he died an early death at 44.
Given that I Wish I Knew originated as a state-sanctioned commission, it should be unsurprising that there’s no overt polemic here. Indeed, it’s possible to take an interview with Huang Baomei, a national model worker and the subject of her own film in 1958, as a concession to pro-Party politics. And even in shortened form, I Wish I Knew can at times feel overly discursive. But its implications, particularly regarding the Cultural Revolution, are difficult to miss. Zhu Qiansheng recalls working with legendary Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, who was personally invited to film in China by Premier Zhou Enlai. But as the resulting film, the 1972 documentary Chung Kuo, Cina, was subsequently declared “anti-Communist” and “anti-China” by the Party’s higher-ups (the famed Gang of Four), Zhu and others were required to engage in severe self-criticism for their hand in it. Of a more tragic tenor are Wei Ran’s recollections of his mother, Shangguan Yunzhu, whose acting career flowered in the 1940s, but who was later denounced as “counter-revolutionary” and eventually jumped to her death in 1968.
As a whole, I Wish I Knew thus stands as a kind of documentary corollary to Platform, taking stock of decades-spanning cultural and artistic legacies—this time centered around Shanghai and not Jia’s home province of Fenyang. The film’s English title (the original Chinese roughly translates to Legend On The Sea) directly points to an underlying desire to know, above all—and to that end, Jia manages to convey a specifically Chinese understanding of how one’s history and culture has been fractured, transmitted, distorted, and otherwise represented, particularly on film. It’s with this in mind that Zhao Tao’s itinerant scenes in I Wish I Knew truly resonate, as her fruitful artistic partnership with Jia is at the forefront not of China’s cultural past but its active present. As she moves through a Shanghai now long gone, Zhao seems to carry that understanding into an uncertain future.