We all live through change, but processing it while in the midst of it is notoriously difficult. Large-scale shifts in the world around us happen both rapidly and slowly — affecting how we view the past, present and future — and there seem to be very few filmmakers, regrettably, who care about this kind of metamorphosis, probably because it’s so daunting a subject.
But China’s Jia Zhangke is one of them, and it’s his artful, conscientious sense of the small within the large in chronicling the impact of his country’s massive socioeconomic transformation that makes him one of the world’s great directors, from his early portraits of disaffected youth (“Platform”), to his breathtaking stories of everyday lives in limbo (“The World,” “Still Life”), and recently, more genre-inflected examinations of what capitalist priorities wreak on personal morality and relationships (“A Touch of Sin,” last year’s “Ash is Purest White”).
He also makes documentaries, as if the magnitude of the jarring reality Jia’s exploring needs to occasionally be given more direct attention. Though his 2010 film about Shanghai “I Wish I Knew” — now being given its first stateside release — was a commissioned work for that year’s Shanghai World Expo, the director was given leeway to make what he wanted. The resulting mix of image and interview, weariness and wonder, makes for a sober assessment of just how much change China’s largest city has been through since the 1930s due to war, civil conflict, political and social upheaval, cultural representation, and the new economic rapacity.
Jia opens with a worker polishing the bronze lions outside one of the port city’s largest banks, while the soundtrack offers up steady background growls. The vibe is of formidable financial might, a feeling echoed before the end credits by a pair of success stories — including race driver/author/filmmaker Han Han — who relay their money-earning prowess. (One imagines Jia figuring he needed to bookend the movie with commercial boosterism.) But those early roars are also suggestive of memories being awakened, or what the engine of change — good or bad — sounds like. Jia follows those lions with shots of ferries in transit, and the people on them — traveling, yet still, in place. People are moving in China, but is it a willing mobility?
What ensues amidst Jia’s indelible, gliding visuals of modern Shanghai are ruminative testimonials from the breadth of an older citizenry — former soldiers, descendants of gangsters and politicians, and (lots of) artists who endured the city’s turbulent evolution, and who in their stories of family, love and survival form a tapestry of memory and wisdom. Many of them are emigres, and it’s one of Jia’s subtler points that by including footage shot in present-day Taiwan and Hong Kong — where some of his interviewees ended up after fleeing turmoil — he gets to engage with his longstanding theme of displacement without making an overtly political statement about it.
Adding to the air of ruefulness and romance are linking shots of Jia’s partner and muse, actress Zhao Tao, walking through areas of development in Shanghai, images that simultaneously evoke progress and loneliness. Jia also wrestles with how cinema has reflected narratives out of China, whether it’s the still-ticklish memory a retired laborer has from starring in a ’50s propaganda film that presented her as a “model worker,” or filmmaker Wang Toon talking about recreating his family’s escape to Taiwan for “Red Persimmon.”
There are also interviews in “I Wish I Knew” with Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien about “Flowers of Shanghai,” and with actress/singer Rebecca Pan (“Days of Being Wild”), who describes the story of her mother’s forced move from Shanghai to Hong Kong during the civil strife as one of closeness, hardship, opportunity and treasured insight about the lessons of adjustment. When she tears up, takes a moment, then sings a song from her younger days, it’s the melancholy beauty of Jia Zhangke’s focus on momentous change in a single human transition of heartbreaking grace.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Glendale