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Thread: I WISH I KNEW/ 海上传奇 (Jia Zhang-ke 2010) 1st US RELEASE

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    I WISH I KNEW/ 海上传奇 (Jia Zhang-ke 2010) 1st US RELEASE

    I WISH I KNEW/ 海上传奇 (Jia Zhang-ke 2010) 1st US RELEASE


    Wandering through Shanghai's, China's, and Asian cinema's modern history

    This is a history of Shanghai paralleled with the history of modern China, and also a history of cinema and the arts in the city and beyond. Always the meandering subject matter, developed through the testimony of aging persons who participated in or observed key historical events, has interesting and logical connections, and the faces are supported by some other images that both establish context and expand the focus. This is done in Jia Zhang-ke's own way and has his mark on it at every point. It's worth watching for any of his admirers. It's also essential viewing for anyone interested in cinematic depictions of modern China.

    This film invites comparison with Jia's factory documentary, 24 City (NYFF 2008), whose problems and benefits it may seem to repeat. (It was made not long afterward.) At the time I compared 24 City to his "lazy" Useless (NYFF 2007) and "haunting" Still Life (2007, Paris) and scored it somewhere in between, and that may seem to risk being true also here.

    But in its offbeat, personal way, I Wish I Knew (the phrase is from an American pop song) is a pretty great documentary. It uses the same methods as 24 City - but to greater effect. The scope is much larger, given that the starting point is nothing other than the largest city in China. There's also the arts focus that's germane to us and to the filmmaker. Yes, like 24 City, Jia gives us a series of people talking to the camera, with other images to round out the picture and add interest. There are eighteen speakers, mostly old, but with one notable young one. They are: Chan Danqing, Yang Yaofo, Zhang Yuansun, Du Mei-Ru, Wang Peimin, Wang Toon, Lee Chia-Tung, Chang Hsin-l, Hou Hsao-Hsien, Zhu Quiansheng, Huang Baomei, Wei Ran, Wei Wei, Barbara Fei, Rebecca Pan, Yang Huaiding, Han Han ( the young one), the Interviewer, and Lin Xudong.

    Context or background shots are richly evocative from the start. The opening one is of two great bronze animal sculptures being dusted off by a workman in front of a bank. The camera looks across the street, where we see chaos - buildings being torn down, and from the look of it incongruously shabby ones. The sense of China's ceaseless destruction and creation is established, and of its current financial solidity, and onetime humble origins. Following are panoramic shots of freight boats in the harbor (again, the small, and the great). Then the camera examines faces on a ferry, closeup. Another sequence shoots men in overalls and hard hats who are caught in the rain, and the camera dwells on them individually, greedily devouring their gnarly, masculine handsomeness.

    The first speaker is a man seated alone in an empty factory, who once worked there when it was busy. He recalls, as will others, a youth in Shanghai disrupted by the Cultural Revolution. These recollections lead to shots of oldsters in a shabby alleyway - illustrating the survival of the enjoyable street life the retired factory worker spoke of. The eternal playing of Mahjong, chatting, yelling, smoking, sipping of tea.

    Well-informed IMDb "User" "trentreid-1" points to a series of ironies in the film, how one speaker "draws a historical comparison between the Warring States period and the alley gang structure of power in early Shanghai," and this is followed by images of a little kid puffing up his chest, challenging anybody to fight him - one of the best images of boyish machismo on film.

    A speaker describes how his civil rights leader father was assassinated by Chiang Kai-shek. There are many stories of families separated and decimated, contrasted with the placidity today of elderly couples at a ballroom dancing club (it's here that one sings "I Wish I Knew").

    Zhu Quiansheng recalls working as a guide to Michelangelo Antonioni as we filmed in China, during the Cultural Revolution. He never saw the resulting film. But others did, and Zhu was publicly humiliated for letting Antonioni film "bad things," aspects of life officials deemed unflattering. It's not mentioned here, but this was Chung Kuo Cina, Antonioni's 1972-shot travelogue, a "forgotten masterpiece" shown at the Museum of Modern Art, the New York Times says, in a good 35mm print in December 2017. In another example - of the kind of filmmaking the authorities favored, a woman textile factory employee, who was considered an model worker, describes being introduced to Chairman Mao. Later, she was chosen to appear in a film we get a look of, playing an idealized version of herself. As she speaks, she visits the now empty, ruined plant where she once toiled.

    We are reminded of Jia's Platform when we hear a woman talk about her mother's coming from the provinces and wanting to act in movies after she's gotten a job, then organizing a traveling troupe. She was with numerous men, some of whom committed suicide young. The speaker's father committed suicide at twenty-four, due to the pressures of the Cultural Revolution - and his sister suffered a cruel fate. We meet the actress Wei Wei, who is now 100, and is best known for Spring in a Small Town (1948) (which we glimpse). This leads us to a notable scene from Wong Kar-wai's 1990 Days of Being Wild and a chat with the adoptive "mother" of Leslie Cheung in this scene, Rebecca Pan, who is from Shanghai, and talks about her long friendship with her mother, who was only sixteen years older - and also about the uncomfortable custom, for a daughter, of successful men taking "concubines," who were considered not just "mistresses" but like additional wives.

    Another speaker, Yang Huaiding, talks of being a pioneering financial speculator, at a time when it was necessary to use cash, so he had a brace of bodyguards to protect the sometimes as much as a million yuan in his briefcase.

    We encounter Han Han running on a track, but he tells us how as a youth he wanted to be a writer, and did so. Over time, his first novel made him 200,000 yuan, through successive printings. His sole focus was to buy a car - and that was how he joined a racing team. Han Han, though introduced casually here and speaking without fanfare, is one of the most famous people in China - a writer who is also a racing car driver - and a runner. This is where we end Jia Zhang-ke's sui generis tour of the citizens of Shanghai.

    The final shot is an ambiguous one: a row of grim, darkly dressed subway riders.

    It is fascinating to lose oneself in the vagaries of Jia's trains of thought, the complexities and vicissitudes of lives tied to the city of Shanghai. Through all this periodically wandering, at one point drenched in rain, is his muse, Zhao Tao. Why must she be here, an ubiquitous presence, as in 24 City? Is it really necessary, given that she stars and is in nearly every frame of Jia's magnificent 2018 fiction feature about a fickle petty gangster and the woman who lives him? Yes, she must be here too - because this is a Jia Zhang-ke film.

    January 24-30, 2020 there will be an exclusive one-week NY theatrical run of I Wish I knew/海上传奇 (Hai shang chuan qi) at Metrograph. It's the "first-ever theatrical release and director's cut" of "Jia Zhangke's poignant and poetic portrait of Shanghai," writes Metrograph programmer Michael Lieberman. Jia Zhang-ke's documentary "Focuses on the people, their stories and architecture spanning from the mid-1800s, when Shanghai was opened as a trading port, to the present day" (IMDb). The film was shown as part of Un Certain Regard at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-15-2020 at 05:01 PM.


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