One of China’s premier filmmakers delivers his love letter to cinema, set during the Cultural Revolution of his youth. Warm, funny and (despite rumoured political censorship) surprisingly sharp-edged.
The most internationally-acclaimed of China’s ‘fifth generation’ of filmmakers, Zhang Yimou is known globally for provocative melodramas like Raise the Red Lantern and wuxia spectacles like Hero. His latest picture represents a step in a gentler, surprisingly personal direction.
Set during the Cultural Revolution of Zhang’s youth, One Second tells the story of an escaped convict hell-bent on seeing a particular newsreel and the orphan girl he catches trying to steal the print. Their dynamic is amusingly antagonistic, complemented by a dash of Chaplin’s The Kid and by Fan Wei’s standout performance as a supercilious projectionist. Each actor wrings humour from their character’s quixotic idiosyncrasies while honouring the desperate conditions driving them.
Every great director eventually makes their ode to cinema, though thankfully Zhang’s shuns inspirational clichés and self-congratulation. Instead, he seems nostalgic for the tactile details of film itself: celluloid’s reflective sheen; the white gloves and chopsticks used to handle an exposed print; an old projector’s whir as it blasts tiny cells onto a massive screen. And this is a big-screen movie, boasting lovingly rendering desert vistas, detailed sets and cinema’s most potent special effect: crowds of extras vibrating with common purpose.
One Second was abruptly withdrawn from its planned 2019 debut over “technical issues”, allegedly a mask for state censorship (a recurring antagonist in Zhang’s career) on account of its controversial setting. Despite the compromises necessary to secure the film’s release, Zhang’s unique eye glints through, weighing film’s escapist pleasures against its propagandistic function, simultaneously offering his characters escape from and justification for the constraints imposed upon them. — Christopher Smol