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By Tony Rayns
Full disclosure: I did the English subtitles for Jia Zhangke’s new film, and may yet get paid for doing them. I wasn’t in Cannes for the international premiere, but a magazine editor of my acquaintance tells me that “some smart people” who saw it there “think it’s just a by-the-numbers commission piece.” Telling me this was, of course, calculated to get my hackles up, to get me fighting back against blindness and ignorance. Happy to oblige.
First off, I Wish I Knew was indeed commissioned. So were Jia’s other recent films Dong (2006), Useless (2007), and 24 City (2008). But the word “commissioned” implies (a) that Jia has somehow “sold out,” and (b) that the film is somehow inherently less credible as “art” than, say, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. I’m sure that most readers understand that almost all films are in some sense “commissioned” by those who finance them from those who make them, so let’s spare ourselves any ruminations on the politics of film financing. In any event, the “smart” crowd clearly didn’t grasp the implications of the film’s opening shots of a branch of the Bank of Communications in Shanghai. A workman is seen polishing the guardian lions outside its door, and a noise like the roaring of a lion is heard on the soundtrack. Jia is acknowledging Shanghai’s status as a city of commerce and burgeoning high finance, but maybe he’s also doing what Godard did with those shots of cheques being signed at the start of Tout va bien (1972). Like every other small, independent production company in the world, Jia’s XStream Pictures has unending cash-flow problems. He solves them pragmatically—but always on his own terms, no one else’s.
In this particular case, Jia was invited to make a film “about Shanghai” to mark the opening of the Shanghai World Expo in late April 2010. Since he was given carte blanche to make whatever kind of film he liked, he accepted. To preempt future “political” problems, he made it clear to the financiers that his idea was to focus mainly on émigrés from Shanghai—politicians, soldiers, artists, gangsters—and to follow some of those émigrés to their subsequent bolt-holes in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The financiers didn’t demur. Does it need to be explained that Jia needed special permission to film in Taiwan—not from the financiers in Shanghai, but from the famously enlightened government in Beijing? And is it hard for non-Chinese to grasp that Jia’s choice of interview subjects—including one major criminal and others deemed “anti-communist”—was inherently going to be “challenging” for the Film Bureau?
These questions broach the problematic faced by Jia and all other serious Mainland Chinese directors of his generation, like Chen Kaige and Hou Hsiao-hsien before them. Any Chinese filmmaker with a modicum of intelligence and taste will sooner or later want to explore China’s particularly fraught modern history: the anti-Japanese war, the civil war, the exactly parallel ideological projects of the communists and the KMT nationalists and both parties’ rapid slides towards extremism and corruption, the ten-year calamity of the Cultural Revolution, the unbridled gallop into state capitalism. There’s an underlying assumption that it’s useful to examine the past to understand the frequently wretched circumstances of the present and their effect on the behaviour and thinking of Chinese people.
The trouble is, even “smart” people in Western countries know next to nothing about China’s modern history, and apparently lack the empathy to understand what it’s like to live in the space between authoritarian government and out-of-control profiteering. This wouldn’t matter a toss, of course, except that serious-minded Chinese filmmakers need a global audience to survive. There’s no state support for the “art” sector in Mainland cinema (both Taiwan and Hong Kong do now offer modest subsidies to selected filmmakers), and the all-powerful market with its new 18-screen multiplexes has no time for “art.” Worse, despite pressure, China still hasn’t introduced a proper ratings system—the thinking seems to be that all films should be “suitable” for all ages—while political and military censorship processes continue to exert a strong grip. Hence the need that Jia and his contemporaries have for distribution abroad. That’s getting harder to find, and less lucrative—as even the likes of Zhang Yimou have discovered. No Chinese filmmaker has been more thoughtful or adventurous in battling all these adversities than Jia Zhangke. Accepting commissions, as long as they allow him a completely free hand, is one of the main planks of his creative survival strategy. You’d think “smart” people would get it.
Let’s open a parenthesis for a moment to consider the sad case of Chen Kaige. In 1988 Chen took his best film, King of the Children, to Cannes. He came away not only without a prize but also dumbfounded to discover that the huge majority of Western viewers knew nothing about the Cultural Revolution (and so weren’t able to supply the off-screen realities the film took as given) and had absolutely no sense of either the burden of China’s traditional culture or the imperative in the late ‘60s to follow a strict Maoist line. Since then, Chen has struggled in film after film to find ways of dealing with Chinese issues that will be intelligible to foreigners. He tried mythic abstraction (Life on a String, 1991), sexualized melodrama (Farewell My Concubine, 1993; Temptress Moon, 1996) and historical spectacle (The Emperor and the Assassin, 1998) before abjectly surrendering to Mammon with riffs on Billy Elliot (Together, 2002) and Lord of the Rings (The Promise, 2005). (He’s also struggled to overcome his inhibitions about dealing with sex, but that’s another story.) This sorry tale is just one of the many negative examples that Jia Zhangke has before him when he considers how to go on producing credible and innovative cinema in China. Close parenthesis.
So what did Jia make of his invitation to “deal with” Shanghai? I Wish I Knew is a long and complex film, and as its title suggests—like most of Jia’s films, the title is quoted from a song—it’s primarily concerned with knowledge. This is only one of several distinct agendas; others include continuing to reclaim the eloquence of spoken (and sung) language—a project begun in 24 City—and championing cinephilia as a legitimate 21st century passion. (The Chinese title, incidentally, testifies to Jia’s own cinephilia: it echoes the Chinese title of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai  by switching the syllables of “Shanghai” to produce “Hai Shang.” Hou’s title Hai Shang Hua means “Flower on the Sea” and Jia’s means “Legend on the Sea.”) But the acquisition of knowledge is the main thing.
Jia sidesteps the period of Japanese occupation, since that was when communists and nationalists were sort-of unified against a common enemy. (For the record, Shanghai fell to the Japanese in 1937. The “orphan island” period followed, with the autonomous “foreign concessions” allowed to continue functioning, until Pearl Harbour brought the Allies into the war against Japan in 1941. Further reading: J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, or any decent history of modern China.) Instead, Jia zeroes in on the civil war of the late ‘40s—or, more exactly, its aftermath, when Shanghai was “liberated” by the communist army and the upper echelons of the KMT used the port as their embarkation point for sanctuary in Taiwan. Wang Peimin describes what she knows of the summary trial and execution of her father, trade unionist Wang Xiaohe, which occurred three weeks before she was born in 1948. In Taiwan, Lee Chia-tung describes how his father (a man of great probity) was assigned to administer properties that had been seized by the Japanese during the war—and how those properties were looted when the KMT evacuation to Taiwan began. Also in Taiwan, Chang Ling-yun recalls his time as a KMT soldier in Shanghai in the late ‘40s (he could have been one of the men who executed Wang Xiaohe) and describes how the “taxi-dancer” system worked in the city’s nightclubs and entertainment palaces.
Film clips similarly juxtapose opposite perspectives. A triumphalist clip from Wang Bing’s propaganda warhorse Battle of Shanghai (1959; it was one of the prestige projects made to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the People’s Republic), full of pompous visual and verbal rhetoric, is followed by a clip from Wang Tung’s Red Persimmon (1996), an autobiographical reminiscence of boarding a boat in Shanghai to flee to Taiwan. In interview, Wang Tung (a.k.a. Wang Toon) regrets the way the civil war forced his father Wang Zhonglian to fight against communist generals who had been his classmates in the Huangpu Military Academy. It must go without saying that these Taiwanese voices have never been heard in Mainland China before, but it’s equally true that no film made anywhere has previously attempted a pan-Chinese view of the fall-out from the conflicts in China’s civil war.
There’d be no problem filling the rest of this issue with more examples of the “knowledge” the film explores, but it would probably be more useful to use the remaining space to flag some of film’s running themes and concerns. One is Shanghai’s particularly cosmopolitan approach to the manners and morals of courtship. (A caption explains how internal migrations in the late Qing Dynasty, provoked by the Taiping Rebellion, turned Shanghai into China’s only truly multiethnic city.) Taking another cue from its title song, I Wish I Knew offers a suite of love stories, from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s explanation of what drew him to Flowers of Shanghai (he was charmed by the courtship rituals of the flower houses) to Chang Hsin-I’s disarming account of how she met and married her American-educated husband. The most piercing of these is Wei Ran’s overwhelmingly moving chronicle of the lives of his much-married mother (the actress Shangguan Yunzhu, star of Two Stage Sisters  and many other films, driven to suicide in the Cultural Revolution) and his half-sister, the latter killed in a traffic accident after traumatizing affairs with two young men. This strand is rather beautifully resolved in the film’s coda, in which Jia’s muse Zhao Tao—playing an “invisible” silent witness to the city’s current project to erase most traces of its own past—sees an old man eating alone in his decrepit apartment and admires his framed photo of a woman (wife? daughter?) who is no longer in his life.
The cinephile strand, which uses images of demolition from Lou Ye’s Suzhou River (2000) to counterpoint images of high-rise monstrosities in the same locations now and a snippet from Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (1990) to introduce Rebecca Pan’s matchless worldly wisdom, climaxes in the spirited defense of Fei Mu, one of China’s greatest directors, long vilified by the Communist Party. This inevitably centres on his finest film, Spring in a Small Town (1948): the star Wei Wei recalls the bizarre circumstances that brought this masterpiece into existence, and the director’s daughter Barbara Fei reveals the political machinations that drove him to Hong Kong and quite likely caused his early death. The vindication of Fei Mu picks up where Stanley Kwan left off in his Ruan Lingyu biopic Center Stage (1992); interesting that the two strongest counterblasts against the official communist line on film history should both come from film directors. Incidentally, Jia cleverly heads off any accusations of preciousness in his cinephilia by cropping all the clips to fit his ’Scope frame: the clips are subsumed into his own rhapsodic visual flow.
For all the glowing testimony of former “Model Worker” Huang Baomei, the Communist Party doesn’t come out of the film looking too good. Jia’s underlying attitude crystallizes in the choice of his final interviewee, Han Han. This personable young Shanghainese is not only a best-selling novelist and racing-car champion but also China’s most popular blogger, noted for his sardonic comments on the uselessness and lubricity of state officials. Jia Zhangke is no more a “by-the-numbers” guy than Han Han is. Amazing, really, that anyone thinks he could be. Only members of FIPRESCI could be that dumb.