“I wish I knew” – Documentary

Yesterday, I watched a documentary, “I wish I knew.”

Widely considered China’s most important contemporary filmmaker, Jia (STILL LIFE, ASH IS PUREST WHITE) focuses on the city of Shanghai in this ambitious documentary, never before released in the US The city’s present in captured in stunningly composed widescreen images that emphasize the juxtaposition of decay and progress, often incorporating the hazy expanse of the Yangtze River. The past is explored through interviews with the survivors of such upheavals as the Civil War and the Cultural Revolution, their stories often marked by violent death and exile (the latter subject occasioning side-trips to Taiwan and Hong Kong). As in his other major documentary 24 CITY, Jia blurs the line between fact and fiction, with his muse Zhao Tao serving as a recurrent presence wandering through the city. In its latter stages, much of the film concerns China’s cinematic past, with excerpts and interviews (including Hou Hsiao-hsien) evoking the often contentious relationship between art and politics. In Mandarin with English subtitles. New DCP digital widescreen restoration. (MR)

Siskel Center website

I found this documentary to be very depressing, although Igor disagrees with me. The filmmaker’s work is outstanding, but it shows China not how we are used to seeing it. In this “mixture of decay and progress,” we are not really used to the “decay” part.

For me, there were too many allusions to the history of the Soviet Union, both in the excerpts from the propaganda movies and the specific language, the way of saying things by survivors/witnesses.

Also, I was thinking about the Soviet documentaries from the time we were not friends with China. At that time, the Soviet correspondents would search for Chinese dissidents, and film interviews with them (half-face covered by black stripe). And these dissidents were saying, how things were horrible in China: hunger, shortage of everything, no freedom of speech… how ironic!
I’ve already mentioned some other Soviet documentaries when they would interview people in England or the US during the 1970s economic crisis. The funny thing – is was all true! The workers would emotionally tell how prices are up every day and how their salaries are not matching up… You do not need to photoshop the reality, you do not even need to cut and paste the pieces of film, it’s all in the commentary on the background…

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