One Second review: Zhang Yimou's censored film is a strange creature

·Lifestyle Editor
·5-min read
Liu Haocun (left) and Zhang Yi in Zhang Yimou film One Second. (Photo: Golden Village Pictures)
Liu Haocun (left) and Zhang Yi in Zhang Yimou film One Second. (Photo: Golden Village Pictures)

Length: 1 hour 44 minutes
Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Zhang Yi, Liu Haocun, Fan Wei

In theatres from 23 September (Singapore)

3 stars out of 5

Zhang Yimou's film One Second was supposed to premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2019, two and a half years ago, but that version of the film was banned by the Chinese government, so its release was delayed and he was forced to reshoot the film. China at that time cited "technical reasons" for pulling the film from competition just days before its premiere, which is a common euphemism for state censorship in the country.

One Second is set during the politically sensitive period of China's Cultural Revolution, which occurred from 1966 to 1976, during which the state went on a campaign to purify the country's socialist movement by purging so-called bourgeois, feudal and intellectual elements from society. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mobilised the masses to root out enemies of the "class revolution", causing families and neighbours to turn against each other as they reported "class enemies" and dissidents to the state, who detained people in prison-labour camps. Historians believe that between 500,000 and two million people lost their lives amid state-sanctioned violence during the Cultural Revolution.

In 1981, the Party officially admitted Mao Zedong's and the government's wrongdoings during that tumultuous period. However, as shown by its censorship of Zhang Yimou, the country's most celebrated filmmaker, the present-day government is still highly sensitive to criticism about that period in history.

Zhang – director of seminal films like Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Raise The Red Lantern, and To Live – is not new to criticism of his works by the state. Before the current paramount leader of China, Xi Jinping, became the country's president, he had already chided Zhang for his 2006 film, Curse Of The Golden Flower. Xi said that the film focused too much on "bad things in imperial palaces", and that "some Chinese moviemakers neglect values they should promote".

One Second, however, is uniquely interesting in that it is a film about a film by China's greatest filmmaker that has been censored by film regulators – very meta indeed.

The film follows three characters played by Zhang Yi, Liu Haocun and Fan Wei. Zhang is a prisoner who has escaped from a labour camp and is searching for a theatre that is screening a film in which his long-lost daughter appears. His daughter appears – only for one second – in a short news clip/propaganda item meant to be played before a feature-length film, which is the main draw for moviegoers. However, an orphaned girl, Liu, steals the film reel and the prisoner chases her to a rural village where everyone cannot wait to watch the highly anticipated movie. The film strip becomes soiled, however, and the cinema operator, Fan, mobilises the whole village to clean the film.

Many people think that One Second celebrates cinema and films, including myself before I watched the movie. They can't be blamed for that, because the director himself called One Second his "love letter to cinema". Movies certainly play a great importance in the lives of the people in One Second. The cinema industry is controlled by the government and what films that people are able to watch are limited to sentimental patriotic dramas sanctioned by the state. Nevertheless, they lap it up and their love for movies is palpable as the whole community painstakingly works to restore the film that was dragged through the sand.

Fan Wei (left) and Zhang Yi in Zhang Yimou film One Second. (Photo: Golden Village Pictures)
Fan Wei (left) and Zhang Yi in Zhang Yimou film One Second. (Photo: Golden Village Pictures)

But on watching the film, one is met with a curious conundrum. Although the three main characters – escaped prisoner on the run, orphan thief and film projectionist – are all desperate to get their hands on the lost/damaged film, their main goals have nothing to do with the film itself – it's merely a means to an end. 

Zhang just wants to catch a glimpse of his estranged teenage daughter in the government news clip. Liu just wants the film material itself to make a lampshade for a lamp which her brother damaged. Fan, on the surface, renders a great service to the people, thirsty for entertainment, through the movies that he screens. But behind the scenes, Fan is preoccupied with maintaining his state-sponsored role and privilege as a purveyor of the propaganda material that the CCP produces. They are all just ordinary people who seek to survive in their own way in a bleak and oppressive society. That grimness is mostly implied rather than portrayed in detail on screen (are those the bits that were cut?), but it is what gives the story a pregnant poignancy.

Despite the censorship, reshoots and re-editing of One Second, the film nevertheless stands as a cohesive story; it's at turns touching and funny. But one gets the niggling feeling that its emotional impact has been blunted. We might never know what censors required Zhang to excise from One Second; it's therefore unclear whether Zhang's original message(s), be it about films or the Cultural Revolution, is borne out in the altered film that has been released. 

The ways that people in 1970s China relate to films in One Second have eerie parallels to the state of Chinese cinema today. TV and film are huge industries and a major source of entertainment for the Chinese, but today it is subject to draconian state controls. The film and television industry has been managed by the Communist Party's Propaganda Department since 2018, and all performing artists were told by the government-backed China Association of Performing Arts that they are expected to display "love for the party and its principles" and serve "the people and socialism."

I wrote previously in my review of Zhang Yimou's last film, Cliff Walkers, that it was sad that propaganda had gotten in the way of the great director's storytelling. Here's hoping that China's filmmakers and film lovers won't be reduced, like One Second's Zhang, to forever chasing a fleeting shadow of what is real and true.

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