There are moments in the Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s “I Wish I Knew” when you feel agreeably unmoored. Beguiling images flicker across the screen and an unidentified woman (Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife and usual star) snaps open a hand fan. Later, she wanders through enigmatic, rubbly landscapes like an Antonioni heroine. Her presence is unexplained, though she seems to serve as a visual anchor or talisman for the director, who has a way of gently destabilizing your ideas about documentary, narrative conventions and even his own work.
For years, Jia — one of the most important directors working today — has made documentaries that include nominally fictional flourishes and fictional movies that draw from real life. (The dramatic tales in his harrowing 2013 tour de force “A Touch of Sin” are based on events plucked straight from Chinese news reports.) Such blurring is far from new and too often deployed to obvious, banal effect; with Jia, though, it has a way of increasing meaning and depth. It can underscore the everyday strangeness of modern life, putting its uncertainty, fragmentation, confusion and alienation into expressive, cinematic terms.
The focus of “I Wish I Knew” is Shanghai, one of the largest cities in China. (The movie had its premiere at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.) In genus terms, it resembles a city symphony, one of those urban portraits that emerged in the 1920s and that reveal degrees of excitement and dread about the rapidly changing world. But like other more recent examples of the city symphony (and like Jia’s other work), “I Wish I Knew” has a tone that is more elegiac than excited, more meditative than bustling. At times, it feels like a eulogy for a city that — with mounds of detritus below and construction cranes soaring above — looks like it is being razed and rebuilt while you watch.
It opens on a precisely framed cityscape, a statue of an imperial lion in the foreground. Its back to the camera, the lion faces a dense yet coherent tableau, which is segmented into distinct visual tiers: right in front of the lion is a vertical swath piled with what look like huge chunks of concrete, probably building debris. Cars and people pass through the middle of the shot. Just past this is a smattering of squat, old-fashioned brick buildings, and taking up the rear are soaring modernist towers. This isn’t just a vivid snapshot of a contemporary city in transition, it is also an entire history distilled in one extraordinary image.
That history is elliptically fleshed out in the movie, which includes snatches of informational text and a number of interviews amid still and traveling images. These are characteristically striking, filled with people, boats, buildings, and bristling with visual tension. Jia doesn’t explain his methodology or provide a hand-holding narrator. Instead, he takes you around the city and folds in a succession of seemingly disconnected interviews with men and women. Some speak about their childhood, others about war. It’s only after a while that you realize that, taken together, the images and stories convey the same dynamic between old and new expressed in the opening image.
Certain historical and political nuances will likely remain elusive for some viewers (they did for me). This isn’t a barrier to the movie. Every city is different for every traveler; my New York is not your New York, even if they seem to look much the same. Perhaps this explains why Jia adds so many voices here, including that of the great Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, whose family fled the mainland during China’s civil war. In effect, with “I Wish I Knew,” Jia is building not just a portrait of a city, but of a fragmented people — one story and memory at a time. He is finding meaning in collective remembrance and revealing a world, to borrow a phrase from Walter Benjamin, “under the gaze of the melancholy man.”
I Wish I Knew
Not rated. In Chinese, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes.