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Cannes 2010. Today's Quiet City: "I Wish I Knew" (Jia Zhangke, China)

Cannes 2010

Talking heads, a wandering ghost frought 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 Jiapointedly refused 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 personal history.  Contemporary Shanghai is given a passing exploration by Jia-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 Likwai 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 honors 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.

this film was commissioned by the chinese government for the world expo, which is to shanghai what the olympics were to beijing. whether the censors chopped it up afterward or jia purposefully kept it non-controversial, i don’t think it should be evaluated like his other films. It sounds more like an atmospheric portrait than anything else.
“i don’t think it should be evaluated like his other films” – Cynthia. Indeed so. The fact that Jia is now taking “commissions” from the Chinese government requires a whole different type of “evaluation,” I’d say.
I will leave it to someone more knowledgeable in Chinese history and cinema to pick at Jia’s evolution in politics. Perhaps Kevin Lee?
“evolution” is one way of putting it. Albeit not the one I’d personally choose.
Jia’s film has not yet received final approval from the government for its release in China due in June. Three pieces of interview remain controversial. Jia is now fighting to keep them in. And regarding “evolution” or not, just remember that film artists working under political dictatorships don’t look at the question in the same terms as yours. Jia is not Zhang Yimou and will never be.
Well, I’m not saying he’s Zhang Yimou, thanks. And it’s clear from his actions that he evidently “looks at the question” in different terms from myself. I remain surprised he’d take a commission from the government. That is what happened, isn’t it?
On a related note, I noticed a little while ago that Chinese DVD of 24 City runs nearly five minutes shorter than the French edition — both versions are PAL so evidently something was cut from the Chinese version. Anyone know the story here?
Thank you for the note Marie! Which three interviews are in question?

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