Even before it reached Western shores for its premiere as the closing night film of the Toronto International Film Festival, Zhang Yimou’s One Second was already rife with controversy. Originally planned to premiere in 2019 at the Berlinale, it was (according to rumor) pulled from release last minute by the Chinese government for fear the film, set during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, would win awards. Two years later, and it’s finally here — but is it in the same form as Yimou intended?
Yimou is well-known as one of China’s most well-regarded filmmakers, especially around the world, for his wuxia epics like Raise the Red Lantern and Hero, as well as more dramatic fare like Coming Home. One Second is very much in the latter mode, a deeply personal story set during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, in which Mao Zedong’s Communist Party asserted control over nearly every aspect of culture, society, and community. In small towns, like the desert-ringed burg of Dunhuang, that meant restricting all cultural consumption to government-approved films, along with newsreels that touted the supremacy and innate goodness of the CCCP.
It’s a uniquely desolate setting for Yimou to drop his unnamed protagonist (Zhang Yi), a recent escapee from a labor camp on a quest both noble and bittersweetly modest. You see, he’s broken out because an old acquaintance has told him that his daughter, whom he hasn’t seen in six years, is featured in a newsreel set to play in Dunhuang that very night. So he stumbles his way across the dunes, occasionally running into a rambunctious orphan (Liu Haocun) who wants the newsreel for her own modest purposes; the whole first act follows this darkly funny cat and mouse game, almost wordlessly battling for the film canister across the desert sands like a Charlie Chaplin flick set on Arrakis.
They both end up at the town’s sole movie house, run by a passionate, party-loyal projectionist affectionately nicknamed “Mr. Movie” (Fan Wei), who has a cute little mug that says “World’s Best Projectionist” and prides himself on sending Mao’s messages to the people.
Watching it in its current form, One Second feels at once an incredibly heartwarming, personal work for Yimou — comparisons to Cinema Paradiso aren’t far off — and something innately compromised by whatever concessions they had to make to the Chinese government. The film’s more political elements are drowned by implication; our protagonist’s reason for being in the labor camp in the first place is never given (besides being called a “bad element”) and certain scenes and bits of dialogue feel truncated or edited in a way that makes me feel like something was thrown on the cutting room floor.
The film that remains is suffused with Yimou’s typically superlative command of craft. It’s a smaller story, more modest in scope than his epics and intimate to a tee, centered around the power of cinema in both individual and societal ways. For Yi’s escapee, it’s a lifeline to connect to a family that wants nothing to do with him anymore, even if only for (you guessed it) one second. For the residents of Dunhuang, it’s a communal space to escape from the doldrums of their lives and lose themselves in tales of melodrama, intrigue, and wartime heroism (the title of the film the newsreel is attached to is “Heroic Sons and Daughters”).
Delightfully, those two interests intersect when the newsreel arrives tangled, twisted, and sand-blasted in transit, and Mr. Movie must rally the whole town to unspool, clean, and repair the celluloid they so dearly anticipated. These sequences are lovely, Yimou lingering on stretched lines of film draped over laundry lines or looped around interweaving spools like the world’s most flammable cat’s cradle.
It’s a clear look back over the shoulder at the grand old days of tactile cinema, when films weren’t just files on a hard drive but precious artifacts that required gentle care to watch even once. And, to be sure, the communal experience of watching something in a room with a crowd. (That this same crowd is tasked with handling, cleaning, and fanning the film dry — “gentle strokes!” Mr. Movie commands — gives them a sense of ownership we miss in the days of streaming.)
Even so, it’s hard not to feel that Yimou is pulling his punches, whether by design or by Party intervention. This is very clear in the film’s conclusion, which features a tacked-on epilogue that is appropriately bittersweet, but feels calculated to ensure that our protagonists never steer too far from Party fealty (or that the Mao regime looks too unkind towards its citizens).
But in the margins of those compromises, One Second feels wistful and personal in ways unique to Yimou. It’s a love letter not only to the act of watching movies, but the context in which he watched them as a child: when every film was an event, something from which to drawn both personal fulfillment and community strength. Even in its beleaguered form, the power of the movies shines through.
This review is from the Toronto International Film Festival. NEON will release One Second in theaters on an as of yet announced date.
Image courtesy of TIFF