This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001



Zhao Tao wanders through modern-day China in Jia Zhang-ke’s elegiac documentary

I WISH I KNEW (Jia Zhang-ke, 2010)
7 Ludlow St. between Canal & Hester Sts.
Opens Friday, January 24

Throughout his professional career, which began with the 1997 underground hit Pickpocket, Sixth Generation Chinese writer-director Jia Zhang-ke has shuttled easily between documentaries (Useless, 24 City) and narrative features (The World, Still Life) — and it’s not always obvious which is which, as his steady, poetic style is built on subtlety, slow rhythms, and an innate sense of realism (and he freely mixes fantasy and reality as well). His 2010 documentary, the Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard selection I Wish I Knew, adds elements of fiction to its compelling examination of the intimately personal side effects that resulted from the Chinese civil war and Cultural Revolution, as many people left Shanghai for Taipei and Hong Kong. Jia and interviewer Lin Xudong meet with elderly men and women who tell tragic stories of family and friends being murdered and executed by the government; an especially poignant scene is set at a community gathering where senior citizens dance to Dick Haymes’s version of the old standard “I Wish I Knew”; one of the interviewees sings into the camera, “I wish I knew someone like you could love me / I wish I knew you place no one above me / Did I mistake this for a real romance? / I wish I knew, but only you can answer,” which could be as much about a personal relationship as the revolution itself. Jia also talks with several filmmakers and actresses, from Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wang Toon to Huang Baomei, Rebecca Pan, and Wei Wei, illustrating how Shanghai has been depicted on film with clips from such movies as Hou’s Flowers of Shanghai, Xie Jin’s Huang Baomie, Wang’s Red Persimmon, Lou Ye’s Suzhou River, Wang Bing’s To Liberate Shanghai, Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild, and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Cina.

As the nearly two-hour documentary reaches its conclusion, they interview younger people, including bestselling writer, blogger, and race-car champion Han Han, who don’t share the same conflicted memories of communism and the Cultural Revolution, instead praising an evolving modern-day capitalistic Shanghai that has brought them vast wealth, with no interest in the past of Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong, and Chiang Kai-shek. Throughout the film — which is finally being released theatrically in the US, opening January 24 at Metrograph in a rarely screened director’s cut that puts back censored images and adds missing facts — Jia’s onscreen muse, Zhao Tao, who has appeared in many of his works, walks through contemporary Shanghai, pausing as she languidly looks out over the ever-changing city, where intensely poor neighborhoods are being torn down right around the corner from massive construction projects. Commissioned for the 2010 World Expo held in Shanghai, I Wish I Knew might not have been quite what the expo folk expected, but then again, they did give carte blanche to Jia, who never takes the easy way out, creating yet another complex, confusing, and controversial cinematic experience.

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