Talking heads, a wandering ghost fraught with meaning, and a politely complacent tone sabotage the new, overlong, and very “inside” documentary on Shanghai by Jia Zhangke, I Wish I Knew. Whether due to the need for official state approval or waned inspiration, the video is Jia on autopilot, haphazardly placing drifting, beautiful digital images of contemporary Shanghai along with overly leisurely and visually flat interviews with people whose personal history has been infused by the city, but whose connection to the China of here and now is left tantalizingly out of reach.
The variety of interviewees confuses the already vaguely focused history, which ranges greatly—though it never seems to explore a point fully—from the stories of parents rising from poverty to head a crime syndicate, being leaders of overwhelming capitalist success, and suffering Cultural Revolution personal catastrophes, to immigrating to Taiwan and Hong Kong, and involvement both in Shanghai cinema and films about Shanghai. All position I Wish I Knew as a look back at a city that’s a polymorphous mystery, a repository of personal events and memory, ones which Jia pointedly refuses to ground or contextualize by showing photos or archive footage of old Shanghai. The city, then, is constructed by the video, a combination of the awe of national legend and the details of personal history. Contemporary Shanghai is given a passing exploration by Jia's muse Zhao Tao, who drifts around the city of 2009–2010—a disappointingly uninteresting allegory but at least one that allows Jia and cinematographer Yu Lik-wai to visually sketch a webby, stalagmite-like city under constant construction and shrouded perpetually by a mild gray haze, seemingly too visually busy, indistinct, and confused to be understood by looking at it, today. It is silent and conflicted, suffused with historical suggestion but dramatically removed from the personality of the heads and tales told in the video of its history.
It would be unfair to besmirch I Wish I Knew for requiring—as it certainly does—a deep knowledge of Shanghai and China in the 1930s–70s and its participants (political and cinematic), but the form this information takes, and the structure of its focus is delivered in tedious, long-winded sequences recording the interviewees with too much contentment and too little energetic investigation. The tone is wistful, elegant, politely attentive and interested, yet its very long-windedness and the abstraction of the city today calls for a spiky, witty attitude towards the breadth of personal experience and the clash with national history that’s entirely missing from the film. When it does roam around Shanghai Yu’s photography shines, as Jia is a rare documentary filmmaker who directly approaches the real through the artful and respectfully, beautifully honoring both. It is unfortunate that a heavy hand lays across I Wish I Knew, a hand too indulgent of Zhao’s drifting allegory, too unwilling to forcefully edit, too heavy to gracefully explore the border between documentary and fiction (so friendly to the filmmaker of 24 City and a film about Shanghai and its cinema), and, perhaps, too weighted down by pressure and importance to plunge deep into the metropolis.