In 2019, this film from Chinese director Zhang Yimou was pulled from the Berlin film festival because of, ahem, technical problems. The real reason, widely speculated at the time, was likely to have been politically motivated: the Chinese Communist party’s displeasure with the film’s portrait of the Cultural Revolution. Now, re-edited and partially reshot, it’s finally getting a release. And with all the tinkering and tweaks, what censors haven’t been able to expunge is the torment and suffering on the face of Zhang Yi’s political prisoner; this is a deeply felt film, grief and pain go to the bone.
Zhang Yimou has described One Second as a “love letter to cinema” and his story revolves around a mobile cinema touring Chinese villages in the early 1970s. Zhang Yi is an unnamed prisoner who has escaped from a labour camp after being told his teenage daughter appears in a newsreel being shown at the start of the film – he hasn’t seen her in years. But when he arrives in town, the prisoner is too late for the show. Setting off on foot for the next village, he spots a scruffy kid stealing a metal canister of celluloid film from the projectionist’s motorbike: this is Liu, an orphan, played by Liu Haocun with bird’s nest hair and ragged clothes, an urchin straight out of Dickens.
There’s some genuinely funny knockabout comedy as the prisoner and Liu tussle over the canister, traipsing up and down over sand dunes; cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding finds epic images in the landscape. This is a movie every bit as gorgeous and epic-feeling as you’d expect from Zhang Yimou, director of early 2000s hits Hero and House of Flying Daggers.
When the pair finally reach the next village, a calamity has befallen the remaining canisters of film. There’s a wonderful sequence here – a real cinephile’s delight – as projectionist Mr Movie (Wei Fan) mobilises the village to clean and restore the damaged celluloid. Mr Movie is a complex character: outwardly jovial, but whose later actions personify the corruption of kindness and decency by communism.
No one knows what censors removed from One Second; but what’s left is a simple, humane story told in metaphors, a film that might work for kids old enough to read the subtitles, appealing to their sense of injustice.