English Title: I Wish I Knew
Original Title: Hai shang chuan qi 海上传奇
Genre: Documentary, History
Director/Writer: Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯
Music: Lim Giong 林强
Cinematography: Nelson Yu 余力伟
Zhao Tao 赵涛
Chen Dangqing 陈丹青
Wang Toon 王童
Hou Hsiao-Hsien 侯孝贤
Wei Wei 韦伟
Rebecca Pan 潘迪华
Han Han 韩寒
A documentary about my hometown Shanghai directed by Jia Zhangke, who is actually from Fenyang, Shanxi Province, I WISH I KNEW, the title refers to the oldie sung by one of the interviewees reminiscing a bygone era, when budding bourgeois value has been permanently instilled into the metropolis’ distinct characteristics after being opened as a commercial port to the foreign trade at the middle of 19th century.
Jia cherry-picks 18 interviewees (reportedly out of more than 80 candidates), who run the gamut from the descendants of well-known capitalist, politician, revolutionist, military officer, gangster and artists, to the contemporary cluster of painter, businessman, writer, singer and filmmakers. A majority of the interviewees recounts their individual stories during turbulent times both before and after the liberation of PRC in 1949, where a cornucopia of anecdotes about assassinations, political persecutions, exiles, romantic relationships, film-makings and so on, brings a potently nostalgic thrill to those who are familiar with the history, and a disarmingly titillating novelty to those who are not.
Spatio-temporally, Jia also bracingly taps into two other locations, Taiwan and Hong Kong, to garner memories from those Shanghainese who are far away from their hometown (whether out of their own willing or not). Indeed, most of these scions are in their senior age, articulate their tales-of-woe with an affecting air of earnest, although sometimes they belie a carefully premeditated diction, to circumvent the sensitive historical and political milieu (one exception is a telling narration of a daughter’s cri-de-coeur to the cruel fact that she has never met her own father, a member of Kuomintang who was executed by the government).
Inevitably, there are highs-and-lows in those selected personages, the inclusion of actors and filmmakers are beneficial to cinephiles, e.g. Fei Mingyi, the daughter of Chinese director Fei Mu; Wei Wei, the leading lady from Fei’s groundbreaking SPRING IN A SMALL TOWN (1948), who resides in Hong Kong and is 94-year-old this year; Wei Ran, the son of famous Chinese actress Shangguan Yunzhu whose life ends in a tragic note; notable singer-and-actress, Rebecca Pan, who stands out as an exemplar of Shanghainese in several Wong Kar-Wei’s best films. But directors Wong Toon and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s involvement feels slightly far-fetched from the team spirit of this endearing documentary, their personal paths with the city itself are overtly not emblematic enough, in spite of their respective filmic efforts.
Segueing from one interviewee to another, the film implausibly inter-cuts the images of actress Zhao Tao, Jia’s screen-muse and helpmate, loitering in the construction sites or on the ferry like a ghost, is she looking for something, or just a visual placeholder to balance the film’s pace? I personally incline to the latter.
Far from being an all-embracing essay study of a city’s yesterday, today and future with a pungent statement, I WISH I KNEW is muted in its ambition, refuses to editorialize the bigger picture, but more engagingly presents itself as a winning ethnic monograph through DP Nelson Yu’s discerning eye.