I Wish I Knew (2010)

Eighteen persons with personal connections to the political, social and cultural history of Shanghai share their recollections in Jia Zhangke’s somewhat stolid documentary, where the sum feels lesser than its parts. 

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Review #2,433

Dir. Jia Zhangke
2010 | China | Documentary/History | 119 mins | 2.39:1 | Mandarin
PG (passed clean)

Plot: Shanghai, a fast-changing metropolis, a port city where people come and go. Eighteen locals, including film director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, ex-soldiers and criminals, recall their lives. Their personal experiences, like eighteen chapters of a novel, tell stories of Shanghai from the 1930s to 2010.
Awards: Nom. for Un Certain Regard Award (Cannes)
International Sales: MK2

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Shanghai; Chinese History
Narrative Style: Straightforward – Vignettes
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

The sum feels lesser than its parts in Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew, which pales in comparison to 24 City (2008), its direct companion piece that explored recollections and personal stories of the past in hopes of painting a portrait of the modernising of modern China. 

While the reference point for 24 City was the demolishing of an old factory, in I Wish I Knew the scope is much broader.  The subject is Shanghai as Jia interviews eighteen persons with personal connections to the history of the city. 

These segments don’t last for more than five minutes each, interspersed with images of a dynamically changing city—the ‘touch-and-go’ approach doesn’t create any depth, which is why 24 City worked better. Some segments don’t quite add any significant value to the discourse, if there is even one at all. 

The most interesting aspect of I Wish I Knew, however, comes in the form of insertions of scenes from famous Chinese-language films featuring, to some degree, aspects of Chinese sociopolitical history in relation to Shanghai. 

“I never thought I’d have to leave Shanghai.”

Not surprisingly, Hou Hsiao-Hsien makes an appearance talking about his Flowers of Shanghai (1998), though he doesn’t quite say anything valuable.  Other films featured include the early classic, Spring in a Small Town (1948), and Red Persimmon (1996). 

These ‘cinematic’ moments are instructive in showing how celluloid could become markers of history or cultural memory, but Jia doesn’t really go any further intellectually, moving on to other interviewees and stories before anything critical could be shaped. 

All in all, we do get to know a bit more about the city, and through it, the turbulent Chinese politics of the 20th century, particularly the impressions of the Chinese Civil War.  I wished it was less stolid a documentary, to begin with. 

Grade: B-


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