One Second Review: Zhang Yimou’s censored drama is a nostalgic gem

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TIFF: Two years after its premiere was canceled due to “technical issues,” Zhang Yimou is revealing his most intimate film in decades.

More than two years after the world premiere of Zhang Yimou’s “One Second” was canceled just days before its scheduled gala screening at the Berlinale due to a “technical glitch” – the insulting and transparent wording of a censorship office become sufficient for its power – the most intimate film of the famous Chinese filmmaker since the days of “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers” is finally here. Or at least a version of it, as details of the cuts and new shots that have taken place since 2019 remain as vague as why the Chinese government interfered with the film in the first place.

Rumor has it that some officials were convinced the film was a lock to win the festival’s Golden Bear, and panicked at the international attention such an award could draw to a story that reflects the poverty caused by the Revolution. cultural (albeit with only a small fraction of the meteoric harshness seen in late 20th-century works like “The Blue Kite” and Zhang’s “To Live”). It’s a testament to the surviving cut of “One Second” that such an explanation still seems vaguely believable.

While far from comparable to the throaty masterpieces that defined the so-called fifth generation of Chinese filmmakers, this heartbreaking fable about a fugitive’s obsessive search for a particular film strip harkens back to the terror that characterized these classics, and their poignant focus on personal needs in the face of collective survival. And no matter how confusing it gets at the end, “One Second” also has something that even Yimou’s best films haven’t always had: a delicious, deeply layered sense of irony. Here is a story about the power of cinema both as a vehicle for emotions and as a tool for propaganda. It’s a story in which collective viewing inspires collective action, but also a story that reaffirms the ineffably personal effect that even the sharpest of films can have on its audience. The simple fact is that once a strip of film passes through a projector, even the most autocratic regime on Earth does not have the capacity to control what people see in it.

Set in 1975, “One Second” begins with an elegantly straightforward encounter that combines the sneaky dark comedy of “Blood Simple” (which Zhang once remade) with the elemental terror of “No Country for Old Men” (which Zhang did did not). An unnamed fugitive played by “Cliff Walkers” star Zhang Yi has escaped from a prison somewhere near Dunhuang, a remote desert town surrounded by the largest ocean of sand dunes on this side of Arrakis. He rushes to the first village he can find, desperate for water, but even more desperate to attend that night’s screening of the 1964 propaganda epic “Heroic Sons and Daughters “. Alas, it is too late and the reels are already loaded on the motorbike which will take them to the next oasis millions of kilometers away. The fugitive can’t even deal with his disappointment before an orphan – the type with a permanent trail of dirt across her face – steals the footage and flees into the darkness, launching a frantic chase under a midnight blue sky and has marked by nothing but the hiss of a desert wind.

“A second”

Photographer: BAIXIAOYAN

By the time “One Second” arrives at the largest outpost where the rest of the film takes place, our hero and his teenage nemesis Liu (played by then 18-year-old Liu Haocun, said to be around 12) are locked in. . a dryly fun back-and-forth battle on a single reel of a movie that neither of them cares about. The fugitive is so obsessed with “Heroic Sons and Daughters” because he has been told that his own daughter – whom he has not seen since being sent to a labor camp for being a “bad element. “- appears in a brief clip in a newsreel with the film. Liu, on the other hand, just needs more celluloid for the lamp she’s making for her bedridden little brother.

But these competing interests will soon be compounded many times over by an entire city full of people demanding something to watch that night, and a power-hungry projectionist (Fan Wei) named “Mr. Movie ”and sees himself as an essential member of the party, capable of disseminating Mao’s wisdom to the masses. He even owns a small mug that says “World’s Best Projectionist” and is so proud that he refuses to show the film unless the copy is in decent condition. Which – by the time he’s thrown at his feet in a heap of black, sandy entrails – it sure isn’t. And so, even if he is able to wrest control of the crucial reel from orphan Liu, the fugitive will have to hope that the city can work together to clean up the film tapes in time. His reward for this miracle would be the chance to attend a two hour program in the hope that he could see his daughter for a second.

So begins a film that effectively exploits the act of film restoration for its inherent melodrama, though Yimou’s screenplay (co-written by Zou Jingzhi) tiptoes around the emotional peaks and valleys implicit in its premise. . Not only are the potentially cutesy passages about orphan Liu and his little brother toned down to the point of feeling subscribed, but much of “One Second” focuses on the stronger friction between the personal and the political, such as the fixation Her hero’s individuality on a single state propaganda clip is subsumed in the citywide shared enthusiasm to reclaim the entire print.

Yimou would never have been allowed to suggest that the fugitive’s aim is somehow nobler than that of his comrades, but our hero sounds curious targets while leaning over windmills. While the townspeople meticulously “clean” the filmstrips for imperfections (“Our film contains heroic comrades, their faces cannot be smeared by your dirty fingers!” Barks the projectionist), it is the fugitive who thinks the more like a typical censor, missing the forest for the trees as he’s so hung up on a photo of his daughter that he doesn’t bother to consider the larger context of what she does in the footage.

Likewise, Zhang’s obvious nostalgia for a more tactile era of cinema softens the lawless hooliganism that holds the film’s plot together, as cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding shoots the long scenes of the city-dwellers’ Heroic Sons restaurant. and Daughters “with enough gentle warmth to graze” Cinema paradise territory. “One Second” allows cinema to represent the corrosive vision of a declining regime, but also to reflect the dreams of a better future for so many. who suffer under his rule It all depends on how you look at him, and at what parts.

Although there are a handful of touching images during the home stretch of the film (eg the fugitive’s face in a projection booth window as a beam of light shoots out from another), ” One Second “never betrays this ambivalence for the sake of ease. tears or a little message. Without spoiling whether or not the fugitive can see his daughter onscreen or not, it’s safe to say that the outcome is decidedly muted – not anticlimactic, but uncertain. Despite all its double-edged sword, cinema remains an illusion, just as a film frame or a strip of lampshades are nothing more than a means of seeing.

The melancholy with which “One Second” ends speaks to it, as does some of the double talk that comes out of Mr. Movie’s mouth over the course of the film. One line might help explain how this once-radical author maintained his resolve during a period of his career that has often seen him appease a regime that vehemently micromanages his own image: “Are we watching a movie or are we?” lets fight ? Shouts the projectionist to his agitated audience. “The movie teaches us to be better, and you should work on that.”

Category B

“One Second” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. NEON will release it in the United States.

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