Saturday, October 30, 2010

Fractured Memories, Contested Histories: Jia Zhangke's "I Wish I Knew"

Zhao Tao in Jia Zhangke's documentary I Wish I Knew.
 Some time ago I mentioned Jia Zhangke's new documentary I Wish I Knew, which had a season at Beijing's BC MOMA back in July-August. Shortly after I was commissioned by RealTime arts magazine in Australia to write about the film, so I held off doing a post about it. The RealTime article recently appeared in the Oct-Nov issue (#99). You can read it below, or see it in its original context here.

Shanghai: Fractured Memories, Contested Histories

There is a spectre haunting Jia Zhangke’s recent work: the spectre of time, of memories being displaced and history erased. From the cities dismantled to make way for the three gorges dam in his film, Still Life, through the unspoken disappointments hanging over the former college students of Cry Me a River, to the discomforting questioning of what is real in a country where the past is constantly rewritten in 24 City, Jia’s focus has shifted from his early portraits of economic fringe dwellers to a probing of China’s fractured historical consciousness.

But whereas Still Life and 24 City implicitly asked where a nation’s emotional, ethical and philosophical centre lies when so much of its heritage has been destroyed, Jia’s new documentary I Wish I Knew attempts to answer this question by reclaiming history from the ground up.

Through 18 interviews, Jia delves into the history of Shanghai, which as a colonial creation and centre of nationalist sentiment, hotbed of vice and incubator of radical politics has long embodied the conflicting forces that have shaped modern China. Home to the most cosmopolitan aspects of China’s Republican culture of the 1930s and 40s, the city was also a stronghold of radical leftism during the Cultural Revolution. Nowadays China’s largest city stands as a symbol of the country’s traumatic colonised past and growing 21st century might. Within each of these broad historical brushstrokes are a million small stories of heroism, betrayal, idealism and exploitation. I Wish I Knew takes a cross-section of these tales, related in talking head interviews, and weaves them into a broad historical net cast over the city as it undergoes a makeover in the lead-up to the 2010 Expo.

The contested nature of Shanghai’s past is highlighted not only through personal remembrances from various political and historical perspectives, but also through the filmmaker’s reflection on the ways in which the city’s life has been represented on screen. Shanghai has long been the centre of China’s film industry, and even when Hong Kong dominated Asian cinema, its industry was nurtured by Shanghai refugees who had fled the mainland in the wake of the Communist takeover.

The cinematic allusions begin when we see the daughter of an executed Communist Party activist watching young actors marching down a fake Shanghai street on a film set. The woman tells the story of her father’s execution by Guomindang forces shortly before her birth, an event recorded by a Hong Kong journalist in a series of black and white photos. “I only know my father through these images,” she says tearfully of the shots of her father’s last moments. She goes on to recall her mother’s subsequent breakdown as she ran alongside Communist troops when they entered the city in 1949, searching for her dead husband among the ranks of the living.

From the woman’s tale we segue into the 1959 propaganda film, To Liberate Shanghai (director Wang Bing), featuring deliriously happy crowds greeting Communist soldiers as their officer declares in close-up, “The liberation of Shanghai marks the complete smashing of imperialist forces in China!”

From this cartoon triumphalism the film moves to the quiet memories of Wang Toon, director of the 1966 Taiwanese film Red Persimmon, based on his childhood experience of fleeing Shanghai as the Communists closed in on the city.

Jia follows this diasporic thread across the Formosa Strait, interviewing elderly Shanghai residents stranded in Taipei since 1949, as well as the famed Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien about his 1998 feature Flowers of Shanghai. Later Jia’s camera wanders to Hong Kong, via a clip from Wong Kar Wai’s Days of Being Wild, starring Rebecca Pan as an aging Shanghai refugee. Jia talks to the actress, herself the daughter of a Shanghaiese woman who fled to Hong Kong in 1949, about the struggles of Shanghaiese in the British colony during the 1950s and 60s.

Memories of the Maoist era are evoked through an interview with one of Mao’s “model workers,” who played herself in Huang Baomei, a 1958 film by legendary third generation director Xie Jin. After happily recalling her brief time as a star of the screen, Huang revisits the Shanghai workshop where she spent her entire working life, now an abandoned derelict shell.

Moving to the present, we see the Shanghai Expo site under construction, the workers labouring under banners urging them to “Stage a Great Expo for the Glory of the Nation.” This nationalistic sloganeering is subtly undercut by a young worker breakdancing beside a boom box, an echo of the roller-skating girl seen gracefully gliding around a rooftop in 24 City, and a mark of Jia’s ongoing interest in moments of spontaneous creative expression.

Between all these remembrances and scenes of Shanghai’s contemporary reconstruction, Jia’s artistic and life partner Zhao Tao wanders the city’s streets, dressed in white — the Chinese colour of mourning — looking for something she apparently never finds. Her silent figure speaks not only of the pain hidden from Shanghai’s glittering neon lights, but also the stories that still cannot be told — or perhaps are already lost.

I Wish I Knew resists simply positing an alternative narrative to what appears in mainland Chinese history books, or validating the version of Shanghai’s past told in Taiwan. Instead, the film redefines the very notion of history in China by refusing all singular, linear accounts of Shanghai’s development. For millennia succeeding dynasties rewrote or simply wiped clean what went before in China in order to shore up their own power, a tradition the Communists have pursued with violent determination. In contrast, Jia’s film gives voice to the vanquished as well as the victors, marking out history as an ever-evolving, always disputed discourse comprising a multitude of competing voices.

There are personal truths in all these tales, even as none of them can individually capture the sprawling complexity that is Shanghai’s past. Most importantly, in assembling this mosaic of human memories and fading filmic images, Jia has forged a poignant memorial to the millions of men, woman and children who have lived, loved, and suffered in China’s most crowded and contentious metropolis.

I Wish I Knew (Hai shang chuan qi), writer/director Jia Zhangke; producers Wang Tianyun, Yu Likwai, Meg Jin, Lin Ye, Xiong Yong; People’s Republic of China; 2010.

Article originally published in RealTime, 99, Oct-Nov 2010.
You can read an earlier overview of Jia Zhangke's career published in RealTime in 2007 here.
See here for a review of Jia's previous film 24 City and his short Cry Me a River.

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