I Wish I Knew: Legends on the Sea, by Dave Platt
When it comes to films and filmmakers, the word “important” can be a loaded one, and an unwieldy metric by which to appreciate cinema. But, permitted a moment on my soapbox, I doubt there has been a more vital and important filmmaker working anywhere in the world over the last 20 years than Chinese master Jia Zhangke. His films, which flit between documentary and fiction, frequently within the same narrative, are masterpieces of juxtaposition and association, manipulating time and space in a way that brings great macro-historical movements down to the minutest personal level, even as the relentless forward thrust of history leaves ordinary folks unmoored in its wake. Jia sets his films amidst the rapidity of development and expansion in the increasingly ‘modern’, capitalist Chinese state, and crafts them in a meditative, hyperreal style (several of his films, especially his work in the 2000s decade, were shot on HD video before he was eventually accepted by the Chinese state film studios) that occasionally strays into moments of inspired surrealism, which capture the irreducible strangeness of modern life. I begin with this utterly insufficient profile of the man and his work for two reasons. First is simply that, despite his relative Western success over the last decade with films such as 2018’s Ash is Purest White or 2013’s A Touch of Sin, Jia remains underseen and undervalued in the West, and I am used to being looked at blankly when I rave about his work (the finest examples of which, to me, are The World (2004) and Still Life (2006)). This is despite the second reason, the fact that his core concerns, contemporary Chinese history and identity aside, are as relevant to the West as they are to his homeland: the overwhelming effects of exponential historical and technological development on society and the lives of its individual citizens, those of globalization and global capitalism on communities and ways of life, and the alienation begotten by such sweeping historical change, which frequently leaves people stranded in a world they no longer recognise.
I Wish I Knew is, at its most basic, a documentary. Commissioned for the World Expo held in China in 2010, it is an elegiac city symphony, a profile as much of a place as a people. The film features interviews with 18 significant figures from all walks of life, connected by their myriad relationships with the city of Shanghai. The film opens with a bronze statue of a proud lion, the gaze of which surveys both a great dusty pile of rubble in the street of the foreground and, in the distance, Shanghai’s magnificent hypermodern skyscrapers rising high. In the middleground between these elements, a flow of people goes about their lives, in cars or on foot. I Wish I Knew is filled with images of this fragmentation and the citizens, frequently captured on ferries, trains or otherwise in motion, who make their lives within it. Even as we hear a mighty lion’s growl on the soundtrack, we are simply watching the statue being wiped down by a tired cleaner – to Jia there is always a reality hidden behind the prestige. Towards the end of the film we find ourselves on the observation deck of the Shanghai World Financial Center, at the time the highest such deck in the world. The view is glorious and dizzying, looking down over Shanghai’s most impressive financial district. We linger for a moment, but we cannot stay with the sublime view; Jia returns us to commuters sitting in a train car, whose faces betray their weariness, before cutting to a view from out the front of the car, hurtling always forward with these souls in tow, like history itself.
Anchoring the film also is a refrain that sees Jia’s most frequent collaborator (and wife), actress Zhao Tao, wandering the streets of the city and Shanghai Expo Park – a place meant to convey the boundless potential of the future, but through its rubble-strewn appearance often connoting the underside of that prospect. These dreamlike moments are open to interpretation (is Zhao supposed to be playing herself or a character?), but they provide a visual anchor for our own metaphorical wandering through the city and its histories, a typical combination of Jia’s utterly unembellished style and something more affective and allusive, pregnant with a deeper meaning that emerges as felt as much as rationalised.
The theme of the fragmentation of Shanghai is carried further by the film’s interviewees (the film’s first line is, appropriately, “I was born in Shanghai,”). Not all of them still make their home in the great metropolis. Some of them recount their exiles to Hong Kong or Taiwan, a reminder that the Chinese people is one people, divided geographically and politically by 20th century history. These stories are sometimes of personal tragedy, a daughter who only knew her father from the photos of his execution in 1948 or flight from the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. But frequently they are rich recollections of specific times or places in the city and its history. Most fascinatingly, many of them involve key moments in Chinese film history. Taiwanese directors Hou Hsiao-hsien, himself a legend, and Wang Tung/Wang Toon recount the makings of several of their significant works, from which we see clips, and relate those works back to their real-life experience and relationship with Chinese identity and history. We go even further back to films like the classic Spring in a Small Town (1948), the reception of which is recounted by director Fei Mu’s daughter, singer Barbara Fei, herself a resident of Hong Kong. For those unfamiliar with cinema or its history in Mainland China, this is a fantastic lesson not only in some great names and titles, but their reception and cultural significance, too.
There is no need for familiarity with China, its modern history, or its cultural exigencies in order to appreciate this film (I would, however, recommend shelving any inherited preconceptions of the Chinese state or people and its culture). Despite its commission, the film is discursive rather than polemical, and offers critiques of pre-Communist, Communist and state capitalist China that each emerge, crucially, from personal testimony. Jia has a gift for exposing the underside of words like ‘development’, ‘progress’ or ‘revolution’, abstract political or economic programs that manifest at the cost of people’s physical and cultural displacement. That he does this frequently without words, simply lingering to watch characters in mundane places like doorways, construction sites, hair salons, streets deserted and bustling alike, commuting on ferries or sitting in cinemas is testament to his profound combination of tender empathy and incisive critique. The addition of spoken interviews and the shortened director’s cut runtime of 118 minutes (how rare a filmmaker goes back to shorten a film!) will hopefully make this a quiet addition to Jia’s growing reputation in the West and introduce him, and Chinese cinema, to new viewers.