I Wish I Knew 海上傳奇
2010, colour, 2.35:1, 136 mins
Directed by Jia Zhangke (賈樟柯)
By Derek Elley
Tue, 18 May 2010, 01:07 AM (HKT)
Documentary on Shanghai looks handsome but isn't revelatory or dramatic enough to sustain 2 1/4 hours. TV, beyond some festivals drawn by Jia Zhangke's name.
Eighteen people connected with Shanghai, including eight filmmakers, provide personal reminiscences on the city's history, people and culture.
Though the Chinese title of JIA Zhangke 賈樟柯's documentary roughly means "Shanghai Stories", the English title sums up its blurry focus much better. In the same way as in two of Jia's previous documentaries (24 City 二十四城記 (2008), Useless 無用 (2007)), there's a sense in I Wish I Knew 海上傳奇 (2010) of the director not having many ideas himself on his subject and just serving up familiar material or letting the camera roll on during interviews. Many of the latter are way too discursive and could easily be trimmed, helping to bring the running time down to a more sustainable 110 minutes max. And what is especially noticeable is that some of the documentary's best material comes from the interviews with filmmakers: it's a society in which Jia is clearly more at home and more knowledgeable.
These interviews, which dominate the second half of the film, will be of some interest to movie buffs, especially as Shanghai was the centre of Mainland film production until the '50s. Taiwan director WANG Tung 王童 recalls being evacuated from Shanghai by boat in '49 when his father was still fighting for the Nationalists at the front; onetime model worker HUANG Baomei 黃寶美 is seen playing herself in clips from XIE Jin 謝晉's 1958 biopic; actress WEI Wei 韋偉 talks about working on Fei Mu's legendary Spring in a Small Town 小城之春 (1948); and Shanghai-born actress Rebecca PAN 潘迪華, seen in WONG Kar-wai 王家衛's Days of Being Wild 阿飛正傳 (1990), still summons up a long past era of Shanghai grandes dames. But where is Shanghai's most famous emigre son, Wong himself? And does Taiwan's HOU Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢 briefly talking about his Flowers of Shanghai 海上花 (1998) have a real place in Jia's documentary? (Hou's connection is only tangential: though born on the Mainland, he did not grow up in Shanghai.)
Though Shanghai was the centre of Mainland film production from the '20s to '50s, the bias towards filmmaker interviews unbalances the documentary. Though the early interviewees — painter CHEN Danqing 陳丹青 on growing up amid street gangs during the '50s, YANG Xiaofo 楊小佛 witnessing his father's 1933 assassination by KMT gangsters, DU Meiru 杜美如 on her father DU Yuesheng 杜月笙, the city's most famous pre-PRC gangster — rapidly sketch in some historical and social background, it's not until two hours in that Jia interviews anyone from the financial world (T-bond trader YANG Huaiding 楊懷定), one of the city's economic tentpoles.
The film's hit-and-miss structure is mitigated by its best quality: regular d.p. YU Lik-wai 余力為's superbly evocative widescreen photography of Shanghai in all its contradictions and different faces. Occasional shots of Jia's favourite actress ZHAO Tao 趙濤 wandering round the city as "an eternally wandering soul" (and even managing to get wet in a clingy white T-shirt) should have been left on the cutting-room floor.
ContactSales: MK2, Paris (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Premiere: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), 16 May 2010. Theatrical release: China, 2 Jul 2010.
Presented by: Shanghai Film Group (CN), Xstream Pictures (CN), NCU Group (CN), Star Art Vision (CN), Bojie Media (CN). Produced by Xstream Pictures (CN). Executive producers: Ren Zhonglun, Chow Keung, Taylor An, Li Peng. Producers: Wang Tianyun, Yu Lik-wai, Meg Jin, Lin Ye, Xiong Yong.
Script: Jia Zhangke. Photography: Yu Lik-wai. Editing: Zhang Jia. Music: Lim Giong. Art direction: Zhang Xiaobing. Sound: Zhang Yang.
Cast: Zhao Tao (woman in white), Lim Giong (man in room). Interviewees: Chen Danqing, Yang Xiaofo, Zhang Yuansun, Du Meiru, Wang Peimin, Wang Tung, Chang Ling-yun, Lee Chia-tung, Chang Hsin-i, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Zhu Qiansheng, Huang Baomei, Wei Ran, Wei Wei, Barbara Fei, Rebecca Pan, Yang Huaiding, Han Han. Interviewer: Lin Xudong.