Jia Zhangke was picked as Film Comment's director of the past decade, and finished near the top of the Cinematheque Ontario's inernational programmer's poll as well. For a few years, the director of such slow-moving, melancholy films as Platform, Still Life and 24 City has been regarded as China's leading filmmaker, noted for his poetic way through stories that fill in the modern non-official history of his country.
His latest documentary, I Wish I Knew, is about Shanghai and, in a larger sense, displacement and trauma. After Shanghai fell to the Communists in 1949, thousands left for Hong Kong and Taiwan. Some lived on in exile; those that stayed endured the cultural revolution.
Zhang-ke's film follows the stories of eighteen people, and the often harrowing events in their family history. It is filled with documentary footage, sometimes describing the very events the storytellers relate (in one case still photos of the execution of her father, months before she was born). There are stories of gangsters and high-flying industrialists, and, again and again, families violently separated.
Throughout, an actress (Zhao Tao) walks through the city, sometimes through historical scenes. (The press materials describe her role as "An eternally wandering soul returns to Shanghai and, walking along the banks of the Huangpu River, awakens to all the changes the city has undergone.")
The role of movies and acting is an essential element here, as I Wish I Knew gradually focuses on Shanghai as seen on film, with several actors and directors talking about their own work. We have a snippet of Wong Kar-Wai's Days of Being Wild, T'ung Wang's Red Persimmon (1996) and Fei Mu's 1948 classic, Springtime in a Small Town, including, startlingly, one of the actresses from that 60-year-old film.
While Zhangke's film is not in competition, Wang Xiaoshuai's Chongquing Blues is . It follows Lin (Wang Xuegi), a sea captain who returns to his home city after 15 years, after his adult son was killed by the police in a shopping-mall hostage-taking incident.
The story of a guilt-ridden father returning to confront his past has some connections to Zhangke's film. Director Wang has said that Lin is "a symbol of the restless ever-changing spirit of China" (according to The Hollywood Reporter), and he's something of a returning ghost himself, staring in bewilderment at a city skyline that changes in front of his eyes.
Wang's last film in Cannes competition was Shanghai Dreams, an account of families displaced from Shanghai in the sixties to work in factories in the interior, all the time longing to return to China's most storied and dynamic city.
Restless souls wander through these films, afflicted by melancholy and the ache of memory.