More than two years after the world premiere of Zhang Yimou’s “One Second” was canceled mere days before its scheduled gala screening at the Berlinale on account of a “technical problem” — the insultingly transparent wording of a censorship bureau grown smug about its power — the renowned Chinese filmmaker’s most intimate movie since the days of “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers” is finally here. Or at least some version of it is, as specifics about whatever snips and reshoots have taken place since 2019 remain as vague as the Chinese government’s reason for interfering with the film in the first place.
Rumor had it certain officials were convinced the movie was a lock to win the festival’s Golden Bear, and panicked at the international attention such a prize might attract to a story that reflects the poverty caused by the Cultural Revolution (albeit with only a small fraction of the searing harshness seen in late-20th-century works like “The Blue Kite” and Zhang’s own “To Live”). It’s a testament to the surviving cut of “One Second” that such an explanation still feels vaguely credible.
While by no means on par with the guttural masterpieces that defined the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, this heartsick fable about a fugitive’s obsessive search for a particular strip of film harks back to the earthiness that characterized those classics, and to their poignant focus on personal needs in the face of collective survival. And no matter how muddled it gets by the end, “One Second” also boasts something that even Zhang’s best movies haven’t always been afforded: A delicious and deeply layered sense of irony. Here is a story about cinema’s power as both a conduit for emotions and a tool for propaganda. It’s a tale in which communal viewing inspires collective action, but also one that reaffirms the ineffably personal effect that even the most pointed of movies can have on their audience. The simple fact of the matter is that once a strip of film passes through a projector, not even the most autocratic regime on Earth has the ability to control what people see in it.
Set in 1975, “One Second” begins with an elegantly simple encounter that combines the sly black comedy of “Blood Simple” (which Zhang once remade) with the elemental dread of “No Country for Old Men” (which Zhang did not). A nameless fugitive played by “Cliff Walkers” star Zhang Yi has escaped from a prison somewhere near Dunhuang, a remote desert town surrounded by the biggest ocean of sand dunes this side of Arrakis. He shuffles into the first village he can find, desperate for water, but even more desperate to catch that night’s screening of the 1964 propaganda epic “Heroic Sons and Daughters.” Alas, he’s too late, and the reels are already being loaded onto the motorbike that will drive them to the next oasis a million miles away. The fugitive can’t even process his disappointment before an orphan girl — the kind with a permanent streak of dirt smeared across her face — steals the footage and runs off into the darkness, kicking off a frenzied chase shot under midnight-blue skies and scored to nothing but the whistle of a desert wind.
By the time “One Second” arrives at the larger outpost where the rest of the movie is set, our hero and his teenage nemesis Liu (played by then-18-year-old Liu Haocun, meant to look about 12) are locked in a dryly amusing back-and-forth battle over a single reel of a film that neither of them cares about. The fugitive is only so fixated on “Heroic Sons and Daughters” because he’s been told that his own daughter — whom he hasn’t laid eyes on since he was sent to a labor camp for being a “bad element” — appears in a brief snippet of footage in a newsreel with the movie. Liu, meanwhile, simply needs more celluloid for the lamp she’s making for her bedridden little brother.
But these competing interests will soon be compounded several times over by an entire town full of people who demand something to watch that night, and a power-hungry projectionist (Fan Wei) who goes by the name “Mr. Movie” and thinks of himself as an essential party member uniquely capable of beaming Mao’s wisdom to the masses. He even owns a little mug that has “World’s Best Projectionist” written along the side, and his pride is such that he refuses to screen the film unless the print is in decent condition. Which — by the time it’s dumped at his feet in a pile of black, sand-blasted entrails — it most definitely is not. And so, even if he’s able to wrest control of the crucial reel away from orphan Liu, the fugitive will have to hope that the town can work together to clean the film strips in time. His reward for that miracle would be the chance to sit through a two-hour program in the hopes that he might see a one-second glimpse of his daughter.
So begins a movie that effectively mines the act of film restoration for its inherent melodrama, though Zhang’s script (co-written by Zou Jingzhi) tip-toes around the emotional peaks and valleys implicit to its premise. Not only are the potentially mawkish bits about orphan Liu and her little brother muted to the point of feeling underwritten, but much of “One Second” is focused on the headier friction between the personal and the political, as its hero’s individual fixation on a single clip of state propaganda is subsumed into the whole town’s shared enthusiasm for salvaging the entire print.
Zhang would never have been allowed to suggest that the fugitive’s goal is somehow nobler than that of his fellow comrades, but our hero dings some curious targets while tilting at windmills. As the townspeople meticulously “clean” the film strips for imperfections (“Our film contains heroic comrades, their faces cannot be smudged by your dirty fingers!” the projectionist barks), it’s the fugitive who thinks most like a typical censor, missing the forest for the trees as he gets so hung up on a shot of his daughter that he doesn’t bother to consider the broader context of what she’s doing in the footage.
Likewise, Zhang’s obvious nostalgia for a more tactile age of cinema softens the lawless hooliganism that holds the film’s plot together, as cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding shoots the long scenes of the townspeople restoring “Heroic Sons and Daughters” with enough gentle warmth to verge on “Cinema Paradiso” territory. “One Second” allows cinema to represent the corrosive vision of a fading regime, but also to reflect dreams of a better tomorrow for so many of the people suffering under its rule. It all depends on how you look at it, and at which parts.
While there are a handful of touching images during the film’s home stretch (e.g., the fugitive’s face in one window of the projection booth while a beam of light blasts out of another), “One Second” never betrays that ambivalence for the sake of easy tears or a pat message. Without spoiling whether or not the fugitive gets to see his daughter onscreen, it’s safe to say that the outcome is decidedly muted — not anticlimactic, but uncertain. For all of its double-edged power, cinema remains an illusion, just as a frame of a movie or a strip of a lampshade are nothing more than a means of seeing.
The wistfulness with which “One Second” ends speaks to that point, as does some of the double-speak that comes out of Mr. Movie’s mouth over the course of the film. One line might help to explain how this once-radical auteur has maintained his resolve during a period of his career that has often found him appeasing a regime that petulantly micromanages its own image: “Are we watching a movie, or are we fighting?” the projectionist shouts at his restless audience. “The film teaches us to be better, and you should work on that.”
“One Second” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. NEON will release it in the United States.