Review of I Wish I Knew (海上传奇；China, 2010), A Xstream Pictures, Shanghai Film Group Corp., NCU Group Ltd., Star Art Vision, Bojie Media production.
Director: Jia Zhangke
Producers: Wang Tianyun, Lu Lik Wai, Meg Jin, Lin Ye, Xiong Yong
Executive Producer: Ren Zhonglun, Chow Keung, Ang Gang, Li Peng
Editor: Zhang Jia
Music: Lim Giong
Cinematographer: Yu Lik Wai
Art Director: Zhang Xiaobing
Cast: Zhao Tao
Running time: 138 MIN.
Reviewed by Maggie Lee of The Hollywood Reporter at CANNES (May 17, 2010)
Bottom Line: An over-ambitious and mosaic view of Shanghai.
CANNES — I Wish I Knew, Jia Zhangke’s documentary on Shanghai, commissioned to commemorate the World Expo taking place in the city this month, is a patchwork quilt with too many fabrics and patterns. Dipping into the historical, human and scenic through interviews and nomadic location shooting, it reveals what most films touching on modern Chinese history address: how wars and political unrest led to suffering and Diaspora.
The film suffers from information deficiency, so while Chinese can relate to most of their conversations yet find the content familiar, overseas audiences are adrift in a sea of non-chronological memories. Cinephiles who adore festival darling Jia would still lap up a section related to Chinese cinema, so widespread festplay and niche art house runs await.
Style-wise, there is minimal variation from his last documentary, 24 City, despite the enormous differences in place, generation and the stories told. Jia’s regular cinematographer Yu Lik Wai’s mellow, impressionist images of old and new quarters of Shanghai, Taiwan and Hong Kong create a tone poem effect that is becoming routine in Jia’s oeuvre. Jia’s screen muse, Zhao Tao, gets the most gratuitous role in her career, roaming the city’s landmarks and neglected slums with a troubled expression.
Comprising a lopsided tripartite structure in which the dots and lines don’t connect, the first — as well as longest, most scattered section — interviews children of Shanghai residents during the swinging ’30s, the Japanese and civil wars in the ’40s pioneering industrialists, high-ranking KMT (ie. Nationalist) officials and executed underground Communists. (pending question)
The most fascinating recollections come from Du Mei-ru, daughter of Du Yue Sheng — China’s biggest Mafioso. Nevertheless, the extent of his fame (or notoriety) is lost on non-Chinese. Since the interviewees were still young then, even though the personal experiences accounted are exceptional, they cannot quite convey a tangible sense of place or spirit of the metropolis.
About an hour on, the film takes a narrative bypass to focus on persons connected to films made or set in Shanghai. Some are tenuous — like Hou Hsiao Hsien talking about location scouting for Flowers of Shanghai only to end up shooting everything on set. Others are valuable if one is cognizant of Chinese cinema, like soprano Barbara Fei’s reminiscence on her father, Fei Mu, and the circumstances in which he directed Spring in a Small Town (regarded as the greatest of Chinese classics), or tragedies befalling the family of actress Shangguan Yunzhu.
The last section features a stock investor, a young man doing hip-hop dance and a writer obsessed with race cars. It feels like a blurry after-thought on Shanghai’s contemporary heartbeat.