It's safe to say there's a consensus out there among film aesthetes. The best of contemporary world cinema has a reductive quality, a tendency to distill stories and imagery down to their essence and then to let those basic elements smoulder and bubble into a larger truth.
It's also safe to say that the Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke and his new oral history of Shanghai, I Wish I Knew, will rank among the best of this aesthetic.
Ostensibly an oral history of Shanghai, the documentary is a string of deeply personal stories told by various citizens, mainly people with ties to business, politics or entertainment - in short, people with an interesting story to tell. The pacing is steady. The stories are told simply, with zero affectation or buildup by the director. The effect is astonishing.
Strung together, they hint at the sheer scale of Shanghai's recent history. The waves of tumultuous change, from the opening of the city as a free-trade port in the 19th century, to the Chinese civil war, to Mao's devastating Cultural Revolution, to the city's current economic wealth. The film adds to this scope in the subtlest ways, through each camera angle or dark filter used to present Shanghai in dreamlike vistas.
The stories aren't told in any historical order. Snippets of the war between the Nationalist government and Communists come after a story about the block-by-block turf skirmishes during the Cultural Revolution. Each piece of oral history is a glimpse into a pivotal childhood memory or family event.
One woman talks about how her father, who sided with the students and early Communists, was jailed and executed days before she was born and shortly before the Communist victory. A man talks about his father, an industrialist and amateur opera singer, who became content in old age to relinquish his rich lifestyle during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, saying that he had already lived a good life. A hard bamboo bed would now suffice.
Interspersed between the stories are images of everyday Shanghai citizens and the city, so rich and static they appear on the screen like paintings by Dutch masters. In his earlier dramatic films, The World and Still Life, Jia lingered on the contrasts of new and old China, the rubble and the shimmering glitz, as well as on mesmerizingly weathered people inhabiting those settings. He would allow these images to linger so long, they would turn from stark reality into deep impressions.
With his 2008 part-documentary 24 City, the director took that style into a new direction of oral history, which he has further perfected in I Wish I Knew, making this kind of careful storytelling all his own. However, what's most striking aren't the actual stories or Jia's masterful filmmaking, the subtle sound collages, the perfectly shot street footage, or his deliberate pacing. Instead, it's simply the film's rarest of rare qualities - its consistent, underlying maturity.
I Wish I Knew
- Directed by Jia Zhang-ke
- Classification: PG
I Wish I Knew opens Thursday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.