TIFF 2021: 'One Second' is Easily One of Zhang Yimou's Best Films
by Alex Billington
September 19, 2021
After being delayed for almost two full years, Zhang Yimou's film One Second is finally appearing outside of China, premiering at both the Toronto Film Festival and San Sebastian Film Festival this fall. It opened first in China in November of 2020, and it was originally announced as part of the 2019 Berlin Film Festival line-up a few years aback. But a day before that festival started, it was strangely pulled from the line-up for mysterious reasons (nothing specific was ever confirmed other than "technical difficulties"). Regardless, the film is now finally finished and allowed out by the Chinese censors. I'm delighted to say that One Second is easily one of the best films Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou has ever made. An instant favorite. A near perfect love letter to cinema set during China's Cultural Revolution, the whole film is so loving and tender towards 35mm and the magic & joy of cinema. I wanted to rewind & rewatch it again as soon as it was over.
One Second is set in the dusty Gobi desert in north west of China during their Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao, which began in the 1960s and lasted through the 70s. It is the tale of a man who's escaped from a farm-prison (there for a minor crime), making his way through the desert until he finds a tiny town. He has a letter saying his daughter appears in a news reel that will be shown in front of the latest communist propaganda film making the rounds (1964's Heroic Sons and Daughters). At first he tries to figure out how to get a hold of the reel, until a strange young homeless girl steals a canister and he goes off on a chase to stop her. When they eventually make it to another town, the 35mm print is flowing out of the canister and almost ruined on the dusty roads. So the unnamed protagonist, played by Zhang Yi, convinces the proud projectionist, a cinema-loving local hero known as "Mr. Movie" (played by Fan Wei), to get the entire town involved in washing and cleaning and drying the print so it can be properly projected again. It's quite heroic.
Award-winning filmmaker Zhang Yimou has been making films for decades, since the late 80s. I believe One Second is one of his best, not only a love letter to cinema, but a love letter to cinematic storytelling. The first half is a lovely ode to Peter Bogdanovich's classic Paper Moon, about two covered-with-dirt drifters who don't really like each other as they begin a friendship over the course of the back-and-forth fight for this film canister. (It's so clearly a nod to Paper Moon in every way, right down to the dusty roads and truck they ride on.) Right from the start, the performances by both Zhang Yi and Liu Haocun (as the young "Orphan Liu") are so evocative and perfect, I felt that tingle of exhilaration knowing I was watching something iconic. Once they get into the next town and meet Mr. Movie, it then morphs into an ode to Giuseppe Tornatore's classic Cinema Paradiso, focusing on the projectionist, who very, very carefully cares for any & all 35mm film prints. The entire town helping clean the print is one of the best parts of the film to begin with, then seeing this rambunctious crowd go entirely silent and become entranced by the film is goosebumps-inducing glory.
Mr. Movie is also kind of the unofficial King of the entire town, as he is "the movie man", he's the one who brings these films and shares them with everyone and everyone loves them. Not only is it the only film they get to watch, but it brings them together and unites them as a "unit" (communism commentary, for sure, but also commentary on the magic of the movies). The character of Mr. Movie, an archetype as well as a person that Zhang Yimou clearly admires, seems to be his way of reminding us how important a projectionist is. The immense care and concern they put into the art of showing films, handling the prints delicately, making sure the projection is just right, making sure everyone is there and can get in to watch the film. All of that seems lost in the last few decades (this has already been talked about for years), and many filmmakers who make "love letters to cinema" remind us of this passion through these kind of scenes. One Second features one of the most sensuous projector threading scenes I've ever seen. Everything about cinema is so lovingly handled, it is undoubtedly Zhang Yimou's adoration for the beauty of cinema seeping into the storytelling.
I've already seen a few other critics complaining that the film is incomplete, and could be better if it hadn't been censored by China. Aside from unconfirmed rumors and vague reports, there's no way to know exactly what was changed or removed. And I cannot judge a film by imagining what should've been in there or what should be different, as I have no idea what should've been there; I can only appreciate what we're given and shown now. And this version of One Second that Zhang Yimou has presented us in 2021 is pretty much near perfect, a film that will immediately go on my Top 10 of 2021 and might end up being one of my all-time favorites after I rewatch it a few more times. The references to communism in this film were refreshingly neutral. There's some obvious aspect of sameness and no-free-thinking-allowed worked into the details, but overall it felt quite nice to see a film that didn't focus so heavily on demonizing communism, and instead simply told a different story set during those times. Maybe he was harsher in the original version and he had to tame it down? Whatever the case, I'm entirely satisfied with this version of the film we do get to see now.
More than anything, I'm relieved to watch a new Zhang Yimou film that I can say I loved. He hasn't been at his best in recent years, even though he clearly has the talent. Perhaps it was easy for him to make a film about cinema and how much movies mean to everyone, even under communist rule. The nostalgia is strong but it's also what gives it more depth. It's as if Zhang Yimou not only had a story to tell, but wanted to work in layers upon layers of themes regarding propaganda, the power of cinema (it can work both as unite-the-community propaganda and as life-changing, mind-opening storytelling), the power of love, how so many lives are influenced by cinema – sometimes in unexpected ways (e.g. the orphan girl didn't really care about watching the film, she just wanted to make a new lampshade for her brother). My only complaint is that the ending is a bit off, an awkward gut-punch after all that we've been through. I do think there is a point to this ending – perhaps that cinema will live on in our memories even if all the old 35mm prints are lost forever.