Friday, September 17, 2010

I wish I knew: a documentary on urbanlife and architecture in Shanghai

video topic: architecture, urban life,
entry type: Documentary film
entry no: 41

video title: I wish I knew
architect featured: 
producer: Shanghai Film Group Corporation
director: Zhang Ke Jia
run time: 125 mins
language: English
size: 6.55 GB
release date: 2010

official website:

description and preview:

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Focuses on the people, their stories and architecture spanning from the mid-1800s, when Shanghai was opened as a trading port, to the present day.

An outstanding documentary feature which combines brief interviews with now-aged subjects who were often direct or secondary observers of key historic events in Shanghai history. But it is not the factual evidence alone which is fascinating, rather the personal significance and sociocultural context which is provided by montage sequences mixing archival footage with contrasting long pans of contemporary and period architecture. The subjects comment freely on the character of their past relatives, and speculate upon their intent and aims within the context of the time.

This often involves ironic, unintentional consequences such as interviewees reflecting on not minding a spartan life under communism as they had lived it up frequenting the opera beforehand. One older man now frequenting a senior dance club speaks freely of the practical necessities overriding ideological concerns in people attending political events for the free MSG and mosquito repellent coils. Ironic, given his relative's instrumental involvement in making MSG production independent of Japan's Aji-no-Moto. Or those once youthfully involved with propaganda film now walking through an abandoned factory floor.

There is also a subtext paralleling Shanghainese history with that of the nation. One instance subtly draws a historical comparison between the Warring States period and the alley gang structure of power in early Shanghai, this is followed by a comic interlude panning by a child bragging for a fight. The KMT, political assassination in Shanghai, Chiang Kai-shek's retreat to Taiwan, and the impact of the Cultural Revolution are all key - but it is also a history of cinema and theatrical art in the city.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien talks about his impressions of the city while making Flowers of Shanghai, and how the novel reflects the changing idea of romantic love there. There is also 1972 footage of Michelangelo Antonioni having tea after coming to Shanghai by Zhou Enlai's invitation to make a film,(Chung Kuo - Cina) about the Chinese people. An interviewee assigned to Antonioni talks about his protest of the way China was being characterized as backwards. As it turns out, he says, the film was being used by the Gang of Four as a pretext to attack Zhou Enlai - a film he has to this day still never really seen. In another vignette, the director's daughter reflects upon the reaction to the now classic Spring in a Small Town, (1948) and her family's move to H.K. to let the dust settle over what may now seem a stylized romantic film. Wong Kar-Wai's Days of Being Wild is touched on in an unexpectedly refreshing and sad manner, and later segments reflecting entrepreneurial capitalism and contemporary youth culture are equally unpredictable.

There are expected elements in a documentary of this type, with family members discussing migration and fragmented lives. But there are also the recurring architectural extended metaphors typical of Jia Zhangke's work. These are multiple and constant, less literal and perhaps more open here. Director Jia has his muse Zhao Tao in key bridging scenes, using her dance background to reflect the sentiments of the first interview subject from the senior dance club who sings the titular song. This delves below the surface sentiments of romantic nostalgia to reflect uncertainty, disparity, and ironic consequences that shaped the city and its filmic representation.

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