by Athena Wong
Jia Zhangke has been acclaimed internationally in many important film festivals such as those of Cannes, Venice, and Berlin. His films have also been shown in many retrospectives around the world, and this is before they have been widely shown within China due to censorship issues. Jia is considered one of the youngest masters of contemporary cinema.
Jia Zhangke’s film, I wish I knew (2010), recounts 18 Shanghaineses’ experience in Shanghai’s glorious past. The life stories spans from the 1930s to present, and from Shanghai to Taiwan and Hong Kong. Every story is unique, yet there is this common and vivid memory of 1949, when The Republic of China was founded, the Cultural Revolution began, and their lives changed. Intersecting shots of the interviewees are images of contemporary Shanghai and archival footages. And juxtaposed to the interviews and footages is a fictional story of the mysterious white T-shirt lady. Jia explains in the Q&A session at the Vancouver International Film Festival that she represents those unheard voices of the past, those perhaps forgotten, and those we will never know. Hence, the film title: I wish I knew.
The Chinese title 海上传奇 (literally meaning “sea legends’), however, cleverly plays with the word 海上 (sea or maritime) and 上海 (Shanghai). 传奇, legends, can be broken up into 传 (meaning past or biography) and 奇 (strange or wonder).
An audience member asked Jia why he did not make a film about legends, of which he replied that legends change as they get passed on from generation to generation. First-person accounts tell a truth, the person’s truth of an event from that person’s perspective. A truth that is different from what we were taught in history books. Jia claims that creating a documentary or fictional story is essentially the same, because what you tell is subjective. Thus, there is only your own truth and it must be told by the witness (i.e. you), the way you remember the event. The film essentially documents those witnesses who lives or lived in Shanghai.
Watch an excerpt of his Q&A in the video below: