Zhang Yimou’s One Second was originally scheduled to premiere at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, but was pull at the last, ahem, second for what were claimed to be “technical reasons” but widely assumed to be related to political censorship due to the film’s setting during the Cultural Revolution. But after a year and a half, it opened in China in November 2020, and now almost a year after that, is playing at TIFF. It’s unclear what, if anything, was modified from the original version Zhang had planned for Berlin—the nature of the Chinese system is such that no one outside can really know whether the film was ordered to be cut or if Zhang had simply failed to fill out the proper permits before sending the film to Europe. Like most, if not all, of Zhang’s films, the politics of One Second are murky and contradictory, but it looks terrific. Zhang is the quintessential apolitical filmmaker, which is one of the primary reasons he’s be able to thrive for over three decades now in one of the more challenging, and ever-changing, film industries in the world. As a crafter of beautiful images, he’s unparalleled, but more often than not his politics boil down to a kind of bland humanism. As such he might be the closest thing Mainland Chinese cinema has to Steven Spielberg.
One Second is about an unnamed escaped convict (played by Zhang Yi, who played Zhao Tao’s husband in Mountains May Depart) who wanders into a ramshackle desert town in search of a film, a traveling newsreel which he wants desperately to watch. He spies a young girl stealing a can of film from the guy who is supposed to be transporting it to the next town and chases after her. The first third of the movie is a kind of cat-and-mouse chase with the guy and the girl passing the reel back and forth and eventually arriving in the next town. Here “Mr. Movie”, the town’s projectionist, quickly puts things in order and the two, along with the rest of the village, join together to fix another reel of film that was severely damaged in another, unrelated accident. The next half of the movie follows the painstaking attempts to clean the damaged reel, while fleshing out the sad stories of the two main characters. It’s all ends bittersweetly, as it must in this kind of melodrama.
There are interesting rhymes between the stories of the two leads (one misses his daughter, the other her father) and the nature of this phase of the Cultural Revolution, with its countless stories of generation gaps turned violent, and also with the film everyone gathers to watch, the 1964 propaganda movie Heroic Sons and Daughters, which I haven’t seen, but which is apparently about an old soldier who finds the daughter he gave up for adoption during the war and isn’t sure whether he should tell her the truth about him. The film critiques the Revolution in ways both obvious (the dusty poverty of everyone in the film except Mr. Movie, because in the worker’s paradise the Projectionist is the most respected man in town) and subtle (Mr. Movie is desperate to maintain his esteemed position, always insisting that he is the only one who can do his job), but the creakiness of the dramatics makes it obvious that Zhang’s interest really lies in the romance of film itself: its maintenance and projection, as well as its ability to enhance reality, to create beauty out of deserts and dust and shadows and light. As with many (most?) of Zhang’s films, there are stunning images in One Second that individually are more powerful than the film that contains them. He’s a filmmaker of moments, of single seconds.