I Wish I Knew, Zhangke Jia

The Mystery of History in Jia Zhangke’s ‘I Wish I Knew’

In Jia Zhangke’s documentary I Wish I Knew, many discuss the pivotal year of 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party officially took over China, reaching Shanghai. It was also the year my mother, putting a finger in the wind, left China with my sister.

I Wish I Knew (Hai shang chuan qi )
Jia Zhangke
Kino Lorber
28 April 2020

Although it’s only released in the US this year through Kino Lorber, Jia Zhangke‘s I Wish I Knew (Hai shang chuan qi) was commissioned in 2010 by Shanghai’s World Expo. Were they expecting a promotional film extolling the attractions of the city and the Expo? One wonders what they thought of this moody, melancholy result, which devotes itself to exploring the legacies and contradictions of history, including things that people would never talk about. We sincerely hope the Expo folks were grateful, and if they weren’t, we’re grateful in their stead.

Zhangke has become a film festival darling as one of those meditative, widescreen purveyors of Slow Cinema, which I’ve sometimes called Middle Distance films. They show unblinking scenes in “real-time” and space, although he’s also begun to embrace melodrama in certain projects. I respect his films without loving or remembering them. If they’re dramas with documentary elements, I Wish I Knew is vice versa, and it’s the one I love and will remember.

Shanghai was an international crossroads dating from a 19th Century treaty with Great Britain. Many people made cross-cultural journeys in that turbulent town during the 20th Century. I Wish I Knew interviews people old enough to remember; the camera simply observes them and listens to their memories of what happened to their parents and families. The last two interviews are about younger generations reflecting the new capitalism: an early securities trader from the late 1980s and a young novelist and racing driver.

The interviews are linked by the visual motif of Jia’s frequent star, the actress Zhao Tao, wandering in various locations as a kind of genius loci, channeling emotions. She never says a word but communicates by gesture and expression, like a dancer. The filmmaker places her there evidently because he likes to look at her, and she does function as a unifying element.

I’m not going to recount I Wish I Knew‘s myriad stories, which you shall discover. I instead recount one not included. Many of the film’s subjects discuss the pivotal year of 1949, the year the Chinese Communist Party officially took over China, reaching Shanghai. It was also the year my mother, putting a finger in the wind, left China with my sister.

My mom was a single mother. She’d been raised in a Russian colony in the port city of Dalian, which she knew as Dairen, the name applied by its former Japanese occupiers. After WWII, my mother’s mother picked up her two young children and followed her third husband to the rubble of postwar Germany. This happened because her husband was a German self-exile and non-combatant who the Russians had arrested upon their arrival in Dairen. For the crime of being German, they interned him in a Russian POW camp for a year before deporting him to Germany, where he never wished to go.

“My mother was a femme fatale,” mom told me. “She was divorced twice and had three husbands.” Believe me; there’s a lot I’m leaving out, so this story can make some sense.

My mom had no problems with the Japanese, who left them alone, nor with the Chinese. When the Russian Army passed through, she reported that women of Russian ancestry were left unraped. However, she anticipated that the new Communist regime wouldn’t leave them alone, especially since the Russian colony consisted of people who had avoided Communist Russia.

My mother stayed in Dairen to care for her step-grandmother, who was too old and ill to travel. So, with some trepidation, mom remained in charge of the house, a small daughter, and an elderly sickly woman. My mother claimed that one night, she heard a cry, saw the older woman’s spirit at the bottom of the stairs, and understood that she had died.

Then, pretending she wasn’t leaving everything behind, mom took her daughter and a few belongings on a boat to Shanghai and then Hong Kong. There, an American cousin who worked for the Office of Strategic Services got her passage to Germany, where she eventually met my military father. I kept wishing she could watch this film and its labyrinthine tales of immigrants and refugees crossing invisible paths, for she’d have been very interested.

Jia’s I Wish I Knew expresses two closely correlated beliefs. One is that history is nothing more and nothing less than the aggregate of every individual story, for “the masses” are a mass of individuals. This has sometimes been a controversial idea, one people have died for in cultural revolution and counter-revolution, though they truly died over money and power.

The second belief is that since Shanghai’s history consists of the stories of everyone who ever lived or passed through it, all these people are, in a sense, still there. You can hear their ghostly footfalls. With every new excavation and construction, what’s stirred up with the dust is memory and the genetic effluvia of those lost souls.

The only POV I Wish I Knew has is sympathy, presented consistently with expressionist touches (like gunshots for one man’s memory of witnessing his father’s murder), mirrored reflections, and exquisite framings of Shanghai, especially areas under construction with mythological past and utilitarian present juxtaposed. We also get side glimpses of Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Since Shanghai was the center of pre-war film production, I Wish I Knew is also about how historical reality gets expressed in film and music. We hear some classic Chinese pop as well as the title song, an American number performed by Dick Haymes in an old recording that was evidently a hit in cosmopolitan Shanghai. The title’s expression of yearning and desire mixed with ultimate unknowability couldn’t be more appropriate for the filmmaker’s exploratory agenda.

We’re treated to clips from seven diverse films. Some interviewees were involved in these films, or their experience is reflected in them. The greatest of these is Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town (1948), one of the earliest films I reviewed on PopMatters. In what I presume is a simple oversight, this film is omitted from the documentary’s closing credits.

The film’s star, Wei Wei, is interviewed, and she recalls that Spring in a Small Town (Xiǎochéng zhī chūn), now hailed as one of the country’s greatest classics, didn’t have such an enthusiastic reception at the time. It was too gloomy. Also interviewed is Fei Mu’s daughter, who recounts her father’s problems with the new regime and his decision to leave for Hong Kong.

Another film of interest is Bing Wang’s officially approved propaganda To Liberate Shanghai (Zhan Shanghai), a 1959 Maoist retelling of the reality of ten years earlier. The passage seems chosen to remind us that some films present history simplistically.

We also see scenes from Xie Jin’s worker’s biopic Huang Bao Mei (1958), whose textile worker star played herself and is interviewed (once again, the masses can only be understood through an individual), and the same director’s Two Stage Sisters (Wutai jiemei, 1964), a reportedly grand melodrama on Shanghai history restored in 2014, according to its Wiki page. This “bourgeois” film got into trouble during the Cultural Revolution.

Also included are Wang Toon’s family memoir, Red Persimmon (Hong Shi Zi, 1996), about fleeing the mainland, and Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien’s exquisitely aesthetic Flowers of Shanghai (Haishang Hua, 1998), which I recall as my favorite of his movies. Both directors are interviewed.

Present as well is Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1972 documentary China, which he made at the invitation of Premier Zhou Enlai, and we meet an assistant on the film who got in trouble with authorities during the resultant political wrangling. Finally, Wong Kar-Wei’s Days of Being Wild (Afei Zhengzhuan, 1990) is probably the most famous film here, yet it’s hardly more conveniently available than the others.

This beautiful documentary comes on Blu-ray with zero extras. Really, the ideal presentation for this film about the questions of history would be in a box with all the other films mentioned. Failing that, we have a film of both gossamer and concrete, dense with memory and ash. In other words, we have history.