One Second Review – Zhang Yimou’s Censored Love Letter to Movies Blows You Away | Movies
In 2019, this film by Chinese director Zhang Yimou was removed from the Berlin Film Festival because of, uh, technical issues. The real reason widely speculated at the time, was probably politically motivated: the Chinese Communist Party’s dissatisfaction with the film’s portrayal of the Cultural Revolution. Now re-released and partially redone, it finally gets a release. And with all the tinkering and tweaking, what the censors haven’t been able to erase is the torment and pain on the face of Zhang Yi’s political prisoner; this is a deeply felt film, the heartache and pain go to the bone.
Zhang Yimou has described One Second as a “love letter to cinema” and its story revolves around a mobile cinema touring Chinese villages in the early 1970s. Zhang Yi is an anonymous prisoner who escaped from a labor camp after learning that his teenage daughter appears in a newsreel early in the film – he hasn’t seen her in years. But when he arrives in town, the prisoner arrives too late for the show. Leaving on foot for the next village, he sees a scruffy kid stealing a metal cartridge of celluloid film from the projectionist’s motorbike: it’s Liu, an orphan, played by Liu Haocun with bird’s nest hair and tattered clothes, a kid straight out of Devil.
There’s some really fun comedy as the prisoner and Liu fight over the canister, rambling up and down the sand dunes; cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding finds epic images in the landscape. It’s an equally gorgeous and epic film as you’d expect from Zhang Yimou, director of early 2000s hits Hero and House of Flying Daggers.
When the couple finally reach the next village, a calamity has befallen the remaining film canisters. There’s a wonderful sequence here – a true cinephile’s delight – as projectionist Mr Movie (Wei Fan) mobilizes the village to clean up and restore the damaged celluloid. Mr. Movie is a complex character: jovial on the surface, but whose subsequent actions personify communism’s corruption of kindness and decency.
No one knows which censors pulled from One Second; but what remains is a simple, human story told in metaphors, a film that might suit children of age to read the subtitles, appealing to their sense of injustice.