Originally set to premiere at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival, Zhang Yimou’s One Second was mysteriously pulled days before screening. While the official explanation for the move was that the film had technical difficulties during post-production, speculation began immediately that the Chinese censors had their hands all over this. In the two years since then, Zhang reshot sections of the film and added others, with the result being a film that feels partially incomplete, or at the very least one that was stitched together with several different pieces.
While this type of neutering is almost always detrimental to a project, and certainly the One Second that we see now has some noticeable shifts where you can tell Zhang wanted to go somewhere different, the Closing Film at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival in a way has become even more fascinating when examining it in conjunction with its behind the scenes story. The production history draws undeniable parallels to the film’s story of an unnamed protagonist (Zhang Yi), who has escaped from a labor camp near the end of the Cultural Revolution in order to see a newsreel with footage of his daughter at its final screening before it’s sent back to the makers and gone forever. The newsreel is a piece of propaganda that plays before screenings of the similarly inclined 1964 film Heroic Sons and Daughters.
One Second opens with Zhang Yi traversing a vast landscape of sand dunes, heading to a remote village which is screening the film, and more importantly, the newsreel. Once he arrives, things take a playful turn, as a young orphan girl named Liu (Liu Haoucun) steals the newsreel from the man meant to transport it to the next village, and makes her escape. Zhang Yi chases after her, beginning the film’s energetic opening act of oneupmanship as the two battle back and forth for the reel. With their own opposing, but equally understandable and empathetic, reasons for needing the reel, the two eventually arrive in another village set to screen the film, where beloved projectionist Fan (Fan Wei), known in the village as Mr. Movie, is waiting for it.
Everyone has their eye on this piece of film, and through this device Zhang Yimou unravels a breathtaking love letter to cinema in all of its glory. Scenes of an entire village sitting in awe while watching a film calls to mind the outpouring of love for the art form witnessed in films like Cinema Paradiso and Sullivan’s Travels. Of course, there’s a bit of irony here in the sense that the film they’re watching is military propaganda, made by a filmmaker whose life has from an early age been negatively impacted by the same authorities who were making those films at the time.
That sense of contradiction permeates through many layers of One Second, a film which elucidates the power of the moving image, the way that it can last in our memory and give us a sense of wonder, heartache, and emotional fulfillment — often at the same time. One utterly breathtaking sequence in the middle of the film sees the entire village coming together to clean off the film reels after they’ve been mishandled and damaged. Zhang Yimou covers the room in film, draped from floor to ceiling, while the characters take great care to clean and restore the footage to its proper glory, all due to their love and respect for cinema. It’s as direct an ode to the medium which Zhang has devoted his life as there’s ever been on screen.
Despite its complications in getting made, One Second endures as a film that reminds us all why we love movies. The transformative power of film is placed front and center in one of the director’s strongest works in ages. Despite the intimate story and scale, cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao (reuniting with Zhang after working together in films including House of Flying Daggers and The Great Wall) creates images that have the epic sensation of Zhang’s wuxia films, whether we’re trekking through sand dunes or standing silently in a projection booth. It’s a film of breathtaking visual splendor, with a current of reverence for cinema that creates a bittersweetness when considering the restraints by which Zhang is forced to work in his country.
The much-discussed epilogue of the film is reportedly one of the additions Zhang made after the initial cut of the film was pulled from screening, and having that knowledge makes it all the more intriguing to dissect. Without giving anything away, it presents an almost anti-climactic, somewhat confounding series of events that can leave you without knowing what to think. For all of the lengths that Zhang goes to capture the power of the image on film, this ending makes you wonder what happens when that power, that ability to hold that image in your mind, can be taken away from you. Thinking about the production of the film, and of Zhang’s life in general, this ending doesn’t feel like a neutering of Zhang’s themes at all. In fact, nothing else could have captured this rallying cry for the importance of film preservation the way that One Second’s conclusion does.