Jia Zhangke's I Wish I Knew plays this evening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as Film Comment Selects kicks off, and again on Sunday night; it also plays next Thursday night at MoMA's Documentary Fortnight. It's currently without distribution.
Shanghai is a ghostly, luminous construction site in Jia Zhangke’s latest, which matches the architectural photography and oral histories of his 24 City with the archival-footage urban-renewal elegy of Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City. As the film covers the port city’s history, progressing from prewar luxury, to the Japanese Invasion, the Chinese Civil War, the Cultural Revolution, the market thaw, and up to the 2010 Expo, interviewees get younger, richer and less rueful: a liver-spotted gentleman recalls his father’s assassination in the 1930s, and a young author calculates what car he can buy with his royalties.
That’s one way Jia marks time; in another scene, a one-time model worker (praised by Mao, exhibited in Austria with other exemplary youths) walks with the crew through the textile factory where she worked for much of her life: it’s now an abandoned husk of concrete, though we see it in its pomp, in clips of the people’s epic film of the worker’s life (she played herself). Beginning with a necessarily unattributed clip from persona non grata Lou Ye’s 2000 Suzhou River, Jia appropriates Chinese-language cinema for primary source materials, essentially recasting all the movies as documentaries.
There’s clips of Maoist war movies interspersed with title cards about the foundation of the People’s Republic, like in any documentary, but often the films themselves are the subject of historically illustrative recollections: the son of the tragic star of Seventeen Years classic Two Stage Sisters relates his mother’s tumultuous saga in between clips, and the daughter of the director of the original Springtime in a Small Town ties the film’s initially cool reaction to the political tumult of the time. Global festival hits from China’s diasporas address generations of upheaval and uneasy mobility: Jia goes to Hong Kong to interview Rebecca Pan, from Days of Being Wild, and to Taiwan, to talk to Hou Hsiao-hsien—whose parents fled the mainland in the late 40s, when Hou was a baby; a clip from his Flowers of Shanghai appears like a luxurious ghost of the bygone opium age—on the rear car of a train, in tribute to Hou’s Goodbye South, Goodbye. Goodbye South’s composer, Lim Giong, is also a frequent Jia collaborator; he contributes I Wish I Knew’s brooding trance score. Jia’s regular DP, Yu Lik-wai, shoots Shanghai’s foogy, smoggy skies in heavy, subtle digital monochrome; throughout, Jia’s muse Zhao Tao wanders through the harbor, amid the neon-blurring drizzle, across bridges and in the foreground of British colonial banks and gleaming hi-rises, in mysterious interludes that may be Jia’s gift to documentaries of the future.