In the Wind

Amy Taubin on Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew (2010)

Jia Zhangke, I Wish I Knew, 2010, DCP, color, sound, 125 minutes.

A BARE-BONES DANCE HALL in Shanghai, date unclear. Chinese couples, middle-aged and older, dance slowly to a recording of Mack Gordon and Harry Warren’s 1945 “I Wish I Knew,” sung in English by Dick Haymes. The song has been covered by dozens of crooners, Americans and Chinese, but the most transcendent recording is on the 1962 album Ballads by the John Coltrane Quartet; the instrumental arrangement, particularly Coltrane’s extended solo, expresses more than words can. Still, for Jia Zhangke, who borrowed the song’s title for his 2010 documentary, the lyrics matter. The dance hall scene occurs about a third of the way through the film, and by then we’ve seen enough to understand that, in this context, the questions they pose are addressed not simply to a lover, but to China, with its troubling past and uncertain authoritarian-capitalist future.

If you don’t care, why let me hope and pray so?
Don’t lead me on, if I’m a fool just say so.
Should I keep dreaming on, or just forget you?
What shall I do, I wish I knew.                     

The original version of Jia’s I Wish I Knew was commissioned by Expo 2010 Shanghai China. I don’t know anything of the film’s fate in relation to that celebratory theme park, but the critical reception was mixed when it played that year at the Cannes Film Festival, and it was never released stateside. The restored director’s cut, now headed for theaters in the United States, is twenty minutes shorter than the original—unusual, as a director’s cut most often provides the occasion for filmmakers to add material they loved but had persuaded themselves to eliminate so as to not try the audience’s patience, or perhaps because they believed, at the time, that less was more. Maybe Jia reedited because China itself has changed over the past decade, as has his relationship to the country, where he was born, where he has always made his films, and where support for his work and for freedom of artistic expression in general capriciously waxes and wanes. Jia has said that the commission did not require him to focus on the Expo, which was still under construction when he shot the film. Rather than giving a boost to China’s cyber-modernist future, as the Expo was designed to do, Jia took the opportunity to delve into a history China treats with willful amnesia—specifically, the civil war between the armies of the Nationalist Kuomintang and the Communists, which ended with victory for the latter in 1949, and which was followed some years later with the equally disruptive and traumatic decade-long Cultural Revolution.

Jia Zhangke, I Wish I Knew, 2010, DCP, color, sound, 125 minutes.

Keeping his sights on Shanghai, Jia organizes I Wish I Knew around eighteen interviews with eyewitnesses to one or both of these violent upheavals, or with the children or grandchildren of those who died or whose families were torn apart during the events. The interviews have a sense of urgency in that the only way to hold this history accountable is through the personal testimonies of these witnesses, who won’t live forever. They come from all walks of life, and almost all of their stories are compelling. And they’re not merely “talking heads.” One of Jia’s directorial gifts, as he has proven in his documentary, fiction, and hybrid films, is to capture human beings in all their complexities and mysteries, no matter how brief their appearance before the camera. He doesn’t abstract them or plug aspects of their experience into a preconceived narrative. I Wish I Knew moves forward and backward in time, like memory, or like the tides in the waters that surround Shanghai, a port city. It was the city where people who wanted to escape the mainland boarded boats headed for Taiwan and Hong Kong.

One of Jia’s earliest and strongest influences is the the Guangdong-born expat Hou Hsiao-hsien. In a sequence that, for cinephiles, is reason enough to see I Wish I Knew, Jia interviews Hou on a train crossing the mountains of Taipei, the light filtered by the train’s windows recalling the train trip in Hou’s Dust in the Wind. Hou talks about visiting Shanghai briefly, to location scout for his exquisite Flowers of Shanghai (2000), set in late nineteenth-century “flower houses,” or brothels. Finding no traces of the old city, or at least of the extravagantly ornate architecture that had been the sign of its wealth, Hou shot his film on a single set in Taiwan. The Taiwanese director isn’t the only interview subject from the film world. Also featured are about a half-dozen actors and directors, or their close relatives. A production assistant tells how he lost two years of his life as an aide to Michelangelo Antonioni, when the Italian auteur was shooting his 1972 documentary China. The Gang of Four not only banned the film but used it as a weapon in their battle against then prime minister Zhou Enlai.

Like Godard, Jia shows how cinema is the primary medium in which history is recorded, and that what matters in it is not only images but voices. Edited with exceptional fluidity, I Wish I Knew collages movie clips and live action, intimate one-on-one interviews with street scenes that show a city where the heavy bronze statue in front of the Bank of Communications is polished by a working stiff but the building itself faces a pile of rubble. The gap between the one percent and everyone else is no different here from the situation in the US. Someone asks: Why did they destroy people’s lives, just for politics? We wish we knew.

The director’s cut of I Wish I Knew plays at Metrograph in New York from January 24 to January 30.