VIFF 2021 Review: One Second

Written by Patrick Hao


Two years ago, Zhang Yimou’s One Second was pulled at the last minute from the Berlin International Film Festival. Many assumed this was due to last minute edits by the Chinese censors regarding the film’s content. This is especially surprising considering how Zhang has been criticized by contemporaries such as Jia Zhangke of being too sympathetic and a “sellout” to the Chinese government. Zhang was tasked with directing the opening ceremonies during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

It is easy to see why One Second could wrinkle Chinese authorities. Even in its current form, the political undertones are strong. Set during the Cultural Revolution in 1975, outside a desert town in northern China, a fugitive (Zhang Yi) escapes from a prison farm camp. His mission is to locate a film canister that contains a newsreel with the final known photo of his daughter. Before he is able to get to the canister, an orphan teen, Liu (Liu Haocun), steals the canister from the delivery man for reasons of her own. This starts a cartoon like back and forth between the two that makes up much of the first half of the film.

The second half becomes more sentimental as the two, learning of each other’s motivations form an alliance of sorts as the reel makes the town albeit in a rough state. This begins the saccharine love of cinema portion of the film, as the whole town is recruited to clean and unspool the roughened footage so that everyone can gather to watch a screening of the famous Chinese film Heroic Sons and Daughters.

It seems like every great filmmaker wants to make a film like this – one about the magic of cinema. Zhang relishes the images of the flickering screen on the faces of the rural townsfolk, hearkening back to other movies of this ilk like Cinema Paradiso. Zhang, himself, openly calls this film a love letter to cinema. Mileage may vary on this aspect, but Zhang certainly knows how to tug at the heartstrings.

Ultimately, the heart of the film, and like most of Zhang’s best films, is the coming together of two lost souls. He shoots the film with his signature expansive style, especially in the desert, implementing the grandiosity of his wu xia epics to this emotional intimate story. If all of this seems warmly nostalgic, underneath the central performance of Zhang Yi also contains a profound anger.

As it currently stands, we have no way of knowing how the original 2019 film was reedited. But the film still contains notes of subversion albeit subtle. Propaganda in songs, dress, the anonymity of character names, and the casualness of authority overpowering town folks and prisoners all points to the painful history of the Cultural Revolution. The nostalgia is certainly tinged by the darkness of Chinese history.

Still, much like Zhang’s recent body of work, his proclivities to sentimentality can be overpowering. Zhang is ultimately a cornball, albeit one with an unbelievably cinematic eye.

One Second Trailer

One Second was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

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