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One Second (Yi Miao Zhong)

Zhang Yimou's intended celebration of old-fashioned celluloid cinema constantly slips into cliches and banality - from the 69th San Sebastian International Film Festival


Adapted from a novel about a man who escapes a forced labour camp in China during the country’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), One Second was originally scheduled to premiere at the Berlinale two years and a half ago. The so-called Revolution consisted of preserving Chinese communism by purging remnants of capitalism. The film was withdrawn from the Berlin Film Festival for alleged “technical reasons”, but most people suspect that it was censored by the regime. The irony speaks for itself. The film became a casualty of the very “Revolution” it portrays.

The version screened in San Sebastian is a highly romanticised, watered-down tribute to movies (marketed as a “love letter to cinema”).

The fugitive (Zhang Yi) hunts down a young orphan called Liu (Liu Haocun), who has just stolen a reel from the much-prized propaganda film Heroic Sons and Daughters (Wu Zhaod, 1964). The local rural community is craving for cinema, and the demise of such a precious item could have catastrophic consequences. The local projectionist Mr Movie (Fan Wei) relies on his son in order to to bring the numerous reels to the local cinema on a precarious cart. Accidents are bound to happen.

The projection room is large, equipped with sizeable equipment, with tins of reel piling up around it. The cinema room, on the other hand, consists of little more than a sheet upon which the black and white film is projected, with audiences sitting on both sides (some watching the projection from the back). Crowds are large and boisterous, yet they turn to complete silence as soon as the reel begins to roll. The image projected on the sheet is clearly computer generated. This is very ironic for a film intended to celebrate old-fashioned, pre-CGI cinema.

The fugitive and the orphan eventually strike a friendship. The fugitive reveals that his daughter is in Heroic Sons and Daughters, and that he has not seen anyone in his family since he was sent into forced labour (his sentence for getting involved in a casual brawl). Liu wishes to steal the film so that she can turn it into a fashionable lampshade and sell it. Mr Movie’s son had a horrific film-related accident that left him severely disabled. All characters are related to celluloid film in one bizarre way or another. These characters are entirely flat and the developments (such as the blooming friendship between the two protagonists) are mostly predictable. The ending is sickeningly doused in saccharine.

The outcome is a communist-sponsored and fairly boring tale of friendship, loyalty and devotion to cinema, some sort of subpar Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988). Despite his attempts to stay loyal to his arthouse roots, Yimou’s career has now slipped into the mainstream. Just like celluloid film accidentally slips out of the projector mid-screening. It is however no accident that Yimou has become one of China’s most successful filmmakers, and the regime’s favourite artistic son. He has firmly abandoned the subversive streak of his early works (such as Raise the Red Lantern, from 1991) in favour of a highly sanitised picture of his homeland.

One Second is showing in the Official Competititon of the 69th San Sebastian International Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 18-09-2021

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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