Treasurable images from Chinese cinema and moving personal histories from the people of Shanghai lend potent human and aesthetic dimensions to “I Wish I Knew,” Jia Zhangke’s lengthy survey of the city’s eventful past and ever-changing present. Originally commissioned to open the Shanghai World Expo before post-production delays put it on course for Cannes, this beautifully lensed work reps a shift from the docudrama experimentation of 2008’s “24 City” into a purer nonfiction vein. Despite some structural lapses, the result is Jia at perhaps his most accessible, boasting especially rich incentives for Asian film buffs on the fest circuit.
The signing of the Treaty of Nanking first opened Shanghai to international trade in 1842. Today, it’s China’s largest metropolis and most important cultural and commercial center, a fact Jia quietly sidesteps in favor of a rich if hardly comprehensive appreciation of the city’s history — specifically, the centrality of Shanghai to such painful passages as the second Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese Civil War and the Cultural Revolution.
Thus, some knowledge of the history is essential for proper appreciation of the film, especially since the interviews follow no strict chronology. But the emotion expressed by some of the 18 individuals featured here is universal enough to lend “I Wish I Knew” a human interest and impact not always as immediately available in his other work.
The specter of parental death looms over a number of the stories, including that of Wang Peimin, who describes how her communist father was executed by the nationalist Kuomintang in 1948, only eight months before his party came to power. The rise of communism spurred thousands of Shanghai citizens to flee to Hong Kong and Taiwan, among them actress Wei Wei and director Wang Tung, who recount their experiences here.
As the interviews progress, a portrait emerges of Shanghai as a seat of significant political, criminal and artistic activity. It’s the latter aspect of the city that seems to most interest Jia, who fills the second half with testimony from additional film bizzers, accompanied by clips of their key Shanghai-set films: Taiwanese helmer Hou Hsiao-hsien (“Flowers of Shanghai”); actress Barbara Fei (daughter of “Spring in a Small Town” helmer Fei Mu); and Zhu Qiansheng, a crew member on Antonioni’s “Chung Kuo — Cina.” (Oddly, while Shanghainese actress Rebecca Pan discusses her role in Wong Kar Wai’s “Days of Being Wild,” Wong himself, the world’s most famous living Shanghai-born director, is glaringly absent.)
Pic feels as though it could have been edited down (as it may yet be for broadcast purposes) or continued indefinitely. Easily excisable is a recurring strand of footage in which Jia’s regular muse, Zhao Tao — presumably a living embodiment of the spirit of Shanghai — silently wanders the city’s streets (this becomes unintentionally amusing when it starts to rain, making Zhao’s white shirt virtually see-through). It feels like a distracting attempt by Jia to place his authorial signature on the film, which, apart from these interstitial indulgences, plays like a straightforward documentary.
The city’s grandeur is ably conveyed in the film’s pristine images (lensed on 35mm by Yu Likwai instead of the ultra-sharp HD the helmer usually favors) of the sprawling metropolis, which often looks awe-inspiring but never exactly picturesque. Throughout, Jia’s shot choices — focusing especially on slums and construction zones — implicitly question the human toll exacted by such splendor.