In 2006, having won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Jia Zhangke’s rocketing journey to the pinnacle of the international art house circuit seemed complete. While his first three features circulated almost exclusively on the festival circuit abroad and on bootleg at home (where they were made without official sanction and thus technically banned), his 2004 feature The World had received broad-based international funding, governmental approval from the Chinese censorship apparatus, and art-house distribution worldwide. The World was a critical hit, and Still Life (2006) was even more generously received. Then he spent most of the next decade making documentaries, most of which were ignored by critics and distributors.
Still Life itself grew out of a documentary project: he traveled to the Three Gorges region to make a film about a friend and artist, Liu Xiaodong. While there, he was so struck by the landscape of a town preparing for its own destruction, that he hastily gathered his wife (Zhao Tao) and his cousin (Han Sanming) and filmed a movie around their movements through the alien space. The documentary, Dong, also premiered at Venice in 2006, but was largely overshadowed by the fiction film and did not get a theatrical release. Nor did his next film, 2007’s Useless, which presents three takes on the fashion industry. Perhaps a bit too oblique in its approach, the film is ultimately a scathing indictment of its subject, contrasting the avant-garde fashion designer who hopes to mimic what workers wear in clothes made to hang in art galleries with the lives of actual Chinese textile workers.
Jia’s next documentary, 24 City, had no trouble finding critical champions. It debuted at Venice in 2008 and received an art-house release in 2009. Focusing on the life and death of a single factory in Chengdu, told via interviews with the people who worked there over the years, 24 City received as much attention for its genre-defying conceit of interpolating actors playing composite characters into its talking head interviews (Zhao Tao of course appears, while Joan Chen plays a worker who is nicknamed after a character in a Joan Chen movie because she’s said to resemble the actress). Jia would expand and modify this approach in I Wish I Knew, jettisoning the fake interviews in favor of film clips, though retaining Zhao Tao, who takes on a wholly different role.
For release in 2010, Jia was commissioned by the Shanghai World Expo to make a film about the city. To this end, he took much the same approach as 24 City: talking head interviews interspersed with present-day footage of the environments being discussed. Instead of actors inhabiting the stories of real people, Jia mixes in interviews with filmmakers, and clips of their movies, to tell a story of Shanghai in the 20th century. It premiered in Un Certain Regard at Cannes and played a few festivals after that (I first saw it at the Vancouver Film Festival that year, with Jia in attendance), but it never got a theatrical release until now, when it opens at the Metrograph on January 24 and with hopefully more cities to follow (though as of now only Chicago and Glendale appear to be booked).
In approach, I Wish I Knew seems so similar to 24 City that it’s hard to see why the one film succeeded in capturing critical and distributional attention while the other did not (until now). Both films take a synechdochical approach to the history of China: the factory as microcosm of the nation and its changing economic systems in the latter half of the century, then pulling back to see the city as a locus for the central conflict of the century, the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. Jia’s upcoming film, Swimming Out Till The Sea Turns Blue, set to premiere in a few weeks in Berlin, seems like it could be a further expansion of this approach, using interviews with prominent writers to “weave a 70-year spiritual history of the Chinese people.”
But where 24 City is tightly focused on the one factory, I Wish I Knew is necessarily more expansive, and I suspect that’s where it might lose its critics. It’s structured like the river that runs through the city itself, meandering and curving through time, not in chronological order, but by association. For example, a story about the tragic life of an actress who starred in Xie Jin’s Two Stage Sisters leads to an interview with a woman who was declared a model worker, got to watch an opera with Chairman Mao, traveled to Vienna to wow the Austrians, and ultimately starred as her self in a propaganda film directed by... Xie Jin. Another: a woman at length details the many machinations that led to her ultimately meeting her future husband leads to an interview with Hou hsiao-hsien, who explains that what drew him to want to adapt the novel Flowers of Shanghai was its minute descriptions of the codes and rituals of upper class Shanghainese courtship rituals. Weaving a beautiful, dreamlike path through history, I Wish I Knew is less documentary as essay film than documentary as prose poem, its meandering reinforced by Lim Giong’s delicate, melancholy score and Zhao Tao’s presence, wandering through the present-day city in the wind and the rain, as if lost between history and reality. It’s the rare documentary that has a vibe.
But that’s not to say it doesn’t have a hard edge as well. Jia’s interviewees circle around in time and in geography (he follows the Shanghai diaspora to Taiwan and to Hong Kong), but they always return back to the rupture that was the civil war. A daughter chillingly details her father’s execution at the hands of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang mere months before the Nationalists fled, defeated, to Taiwan, while a man describes the hell his mother and sister went through during the Cultural Revolution. The film is bookended by tales of capital accumulation: prewar industrialists dancing to the English language song that gives the film its title in the beginning and ending with a pioneering stock speculator carrying around suitcases of unheard of wealth. The film’s final interview is with Han Han, a young man who, at the time, was known as a novelist, race car driver, and blogger, but who has since become one of China’s best young directors (his Duckweed was a Back to the Future style comedy hit in 2017, while his Pegasus was one of the stranger, and better, films of last year’s Lunar New Year slate). His optimism and self-confidence is outrageous given the tragedies we’ve seen over the previous two hours, but such is the nature of youth. These segments, satirical, infuriating, heart-breaking, jolt us out of the rhythm of the film, of the flow of history. I Wish I Knew, as much as it is about these people, this city, and this country, is about how we experience history itself. We get lost in it, and often only in retrospect can we see just how massively things have changed. It’s not by chance that most of the stories we hear are told about parents and grandparents: family is as much an embodiment of history as a factory or a city or a nation.
The film opens with the sound of a lion roaring. Eventually we see that the lion is a statue outside a bank. It looks out on the city, and everything before it is rubble, or buildings in a state of collapse, ready to be rebuilt under the eyes of (predatory) capital. Early on, we see an extended clip from Lou Ye’s Suzhou River, filmed in Shanghai in 1999 but released in 2000, the same year as Jia’s Platform. He films the city from the river: the rundown buildings and even shabbier people, a grey-green industrial wasteland at the end of a disastrous century. Jia then cuts to his own footage, filmed along the same river in 2009 but released in 2010 (or 2020). It’s a landscape entirely transformed: shiny and gleaming, glass and steel, polished and plastic. Safe enough for a wedding, when it’s not raining.
After, I Wish I Knew, Jia returned to fiction filmmaking, but his approach had changed almost entirely. His next three films, A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart, and Ash Is Purest White, would be episodic epics, the latter two covering large swaths of modern Chinese history, while the first was based in documented fact: stories of real people caught in the chaos of the transforming nation. At this point, it seems apparent that his documentary phase was an essential step in his development as a filmmaker, that he found in this time a new perspective on his nation’s history (which he had always been interested in depicting) and a new way of exploring it.