Windows on the World
By Aliza Ma

I Wish I Knew
Dir. Jia Zhangke, China

“The boys went to Kaohsiung and were tricked into an unfinished building to watch a movie. There was actually neither a movie nor a romantic story. They looked at the city through a window as big as the screen. What the city presented to them was cruel reality.”—Jia Zhangke on The Boys from Fengkuei

A tracking camera skims along the Shanghai harbor, revealing faint glimpses of the Yangtze River with the opening credits of I Wish I Knew. Enshrouded in fog—as if seen through teary eyes—and receding behind a screen of metal fencing, the hazy image resembles something drawn from memory: melancholy, out of reach, and impossible to capture. A pensive journey through the myth-steeped port city and its eccentric inhabitants made in the year leading up to the 2010 Shanghai World Expo—a colossal event that would irrevocably change the fate of thousands—Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew looks backward to excavate the city’s untold oral histories, and inward to question received notions of national progress.

The final film of the Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective at Museum of the Moving Image, I Wish I Knew is a link between two eminent directors of Chinese independent filmmaking and their shared histories. Jia recalled the profound experience of skipping class to see Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Boys from Fengkuei as a Beijing Film Academy student in 1995 in a recent essay about his mentor. “Why would a film about Taiwanese young adults across the Strait make me feel as if it is about friends in my hometown in Shanxi?” he reflected. That “window,” in the unfinished building, referenced in the quote above, revealed an unanticipated landscape to the boys in Fengkuei—like a viewfinder onto the city and its history—and could be an analogy for Jia’s own output. In his first seven years as a director, his films, from student short Xiao Shan Going Home (1995) to Unknown Pleasures (2002), were all set in his native Shanxi province and bore an intrepid observational style. They confronted the absence of cinematic documentation in post-1949 Mainland China head-on, and bespoke of Jia’s personal relationship to filmmaking. In these early films (such as Platform, which ends in 1989), the spirit of the eighties—a decade of national reform accompanied by the first influxes of pop culture from Hong Kong and Taiwan—suffused rebellious young protagonists, embodying existential estrangement, with hope and imagination.

Since 2004’s The World, Jia’s cinema has broadened its canvas and extended its historical scope, providing evidence that China’s whirlwind modernization in the new millennium has nullified any inherited strategies of vérité. Contemplating the awe-striking urban developments engendered by the country’s new economic miracle—Beijing’s part-Babel, part-Vegas Strip World Park in The World, the disappearing riverside village of Fenjie by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in 2006’s Still Life, the uncanny city-within-a-city mega-complex in Chengdu in 2008’s 24 City, the Expo sites in I Wish I Knewand the plight of individuals negotiating these ever-changing environments, they examine the incongruent relationship between social growth and individual sacrifice. In these recent films, Jia’s idiosyncratic realist imperative is synthesized with premodern modes of storytelling, which derive from and correspond to previous periods of social revolution, overlaying the ever transforming present with a sense of historical simultaneity. “Ten years after making my first film and confronting the problems of modern China, I am interested in the issue of Chinese history, because a lot of the problems we are facing today have their roots in our past,” Jia told Andrew Chan in a 2009 interview in Film Comment.

Whereas Hou imbues his most autobiographical films with a sense of longing for the Mainland (most heartbreakingly through the portrait of his paternal grandmother, who was always trying to “walk” back to the Mainland from Taiwan in A Time to Live and a Time to Die), Jia’s post-2004 films pursue personal histories which have been lost amidst the country’s political tumult. It is through the subject of Shanghai that the two directors’ complex relationships to their shared birth country converge. About ten years before Jia filmed I Wish I Knew there, Hou traversed the same streets, seeking locations for 1998’s Flowers of Shanghai. It was all for naught, as he found the appropriate places had all been demolished—the choice to keep Flowers enclosed within the dreamy opiate-tinted flower house chambers was employed out of necessity, but to ingenious results. A decade later, I Wish I Knew concurs that, despite its countless representations throughout artistic and historical discourse, Shanghai somehow remains inscrutable to the camera eye and resistant to documentation. In I Wish I Knew, Jia assembles oral histories from individuals shaped by the political upheavals of the last fifty years, opening a new window onto their history and ameliorating a vacuous modernity brought upon Shanghai by the frenzy of the new millennium.

Hou appears in I Wish I Knewon a glimmering train ride through the mountains in Taipei (resembling the journey Ah-yuan and Ah-yun take in Dust in the Wind), discussing Shanghai’s past and present. The script for Flowers of Shanghai was derived from a serial novel written in the late Qing dynasty by Shanghai native Han Bangqing. Hou liked the material because “the book has many characters, and each is very individual.” In these novels, there are no main characters and there is no central narrative. Jia also draws from this literary tradition to form the narrative structure for I Wish I Knew, collating a variety of interviews with real-life characters—criminals, performers, businessmen, and writers—many of whom were forced to migrate to the neighboring ports of Hong Kong and Taiwan in 1949 or in the decades following.

A locus of film culture in China from the turn of the century, Shanghai saw the first massive migration of Mainlanders to its neighboring ports at the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, forming discursive personal connections between those Mainlanders and Hong Kong and Taiwan. Hence, a number of Jia’s interview subjects have complex personal relationships with the city’s photographic legacy. There are movie stars, like Wei Wei, who stayed in Shanghai and costarred in the city’s most emblematic mid-century masterpiece, Spring in a Small Town (1948), and Rebecca Pan (also in Flowers), perhaps best known for her appearance in Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (1990), who left Shanghai in 1949, but wistfully reminisces about the “old China” in its local dialect. Filmmaker Wang Toon vividly recounts fleeing to Taiwan by boat during the Cultural Revolution, when his grandmother tied each family member by a single rope at the waist so they would not be separated in the bustling Bund—a memory he recreates in his film Red Persimmon (1996). Most devastatingly, Wang Peimin tells about her father, a communist arrested under false pretenses and sentenced to death before Peimin was born; she has only ever known him through the photos strangers took of him in the moments before his execution. If there is a hero in I Wish I Knew, it’s Han Han, the youngest interviewee; a novelist, racecar driver, and as of 2014, filmmaker (The Continent, in which Jia makes a cameo), he is possessed of a spry wit and acute awareness of his environment, a sort of wunderkind for a new generation.

Following the old Confucian metaphor that a flowing river signifies the vicissitudes of time, in I Wish I Knew it also represents the weight of progress. Jia’s mercurial camera, aided by the adroit cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, languidly follows Shanghai’s sinewy streets as it does the Yangtze, sometimes transported by a moving streetcar and sometimes appearing as though it’s weightlessly drifting through the city, capturing flickers and reflections in the windows and puddles and hugging the corners of impressive structures—some being demolished and others being built. The camera is rarely stationary, but when it is, an overpowering sense of loss and sadness settles in. The soundtrack, designed by Giom Lam, who also worked on Hou’s Goodbye South, Goodbye, commingles the ambient sounds of the Bund (like the song “The East is Red,” which rings from the clock tower every hour) with elegiac soundtrack music (such as the “Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto,” a song of unconsummated love and inevitable parting)—and seems to emanate from the misty air, adding a phantom aura to the atmosphere.

Jia’s consummate muse Zhao Tao appears as a silent spirit—a witness to the changes that the filmmaker cannot fully convey to his viewers. Although she is dressed like everyone else, she seems to be lost in the crowds, and in pursuit of something from the past. Drifting about in aimless reluctance, she is a bystander to this new China as embodied by the World Expo—“better city, better life” was its motto—but she is helpless against the changes that bring upon the destruction of the city she loved, and remains restrained and enigmatic as she gradually makes her way to the Expo’s construction site. If there are words to convey her melancholy, they may be the lyrics to the eponymous song used in the film: “Did I mistake this for a fake romance/I wish I knew/But only you can answer…”

The Shanghai harbor, with its daily streams of people coming and going, bears the promise that history will inevitably repeat itself (it’s incredible to note that in 1910, the Qing dynasty World Fair took place just up the river in Nanjing), but also offers possibilities of new life. A subject of interest that has remained with Jia since his first feature, Xiao Wu (1997), is the complexity of public spaces, physical realizations of lived time, where a multitude of regional dialects and foreign languages are simultaneously heard, and people from all walks of life are on the move. If the style of his films has shifted drastically it is not because he now lacks a realist imperative, but because reality itself can no longer be easily construed. In various scenes of I Wish I Knew the use of slow motion conveys what Jia has described as a transformed, “science fiction-like” milieu. “People come to understand their surroundings in different ways,” said Jia in an interview at the Asia Society in 2008, “for me, filming my environment is the only way to understand its complexity.” In his essay about Hou, he describes the august filmmaker as a “genius narrator passing down the memories of a nation through films,” and with I Wish I Knew Jia inherits the same role.

I Wish I Knew played at the Museum of the Moving Image on October 17.