TIFF 2021 | One Second (Zhang Yimou, China)

By Shelly Kraicer

Published in Cinema Scope #87 (Summer 2021)

Zhang Yimou has released 22 features to date, in addition to a couple of shorts, two more features shot and ready to go (censors permitting), his grandiose made-for-TV pageants for the Beijing Olympics, opera stagings like Turandot at the Forbidden City, and, if we’re being charitable, the co-director’s label attached to the execrable 2015 Fan Bingbing vehicle Lady of the Dynasty. Like many directors of his generation from China, his earliest work arguably remains his strongest. His groundbreaking Fifth Generation dramas, spanning from Red Sorghum (1987) to To Live (1994), not only redefined what was artistically and politically possible in Chinese cinema (at least until the banning of the latter film), but also introduced world audiences to a cinema of powerfully dramatic chromaticism and tactile spectacularity that was both accessible and marketable, simultaneously satisfying, enriching, and complicating Western markets’ and viewers’ tendency to impose an orientalist mode of reception on China’s films and art.

At the same time, Zhang was also working in more local modes with a series of genre films and comedies that spoke to an emerging, ticket-buying Chinese public, including Code Name Cougar (1989), Keep Cool (1997), Happy Times (2000), and A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (2009). As China’s domestic film market rapidly expanded and demand grew for blockbuster entertainments that could cater to ever-larger audiences and justify ever-higher ticket prices, Zhang obliged with celebrity-loaded spectaculars like Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004), Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), and internationalized pastiches like Flowers of War (2011) and The Great Wall (2016). (The one potential outlier in this category is Shadow [2018], which points towards a thread of cryptic self-portraiture or disguised autobiography that haunts all of Zhang’s politically engaged films.)

One Second belongs to yet another key cluster of his films, though one that is often less commented upon than his art-house breakthroughs or widescreen extravaganzas: those set during the Cultural Revolution (henceforth “CR”), the decade of violent societal upheaval instigated by Mao and his radical allies after the Chairman had been sidelined by party elites in the wake of the economic and social disasters of his Great Leap Forward (1958-1962). Harnessing youthful resentment over the quiescence and corruption of the older generation, Mao unleashed roving bands of Red Guards to topple the representatives of established culture and authority and impose ideological purity and discipline on an insufficiently revolutionized country. Following Mao’s death in 1976, the resultant chaos, destruction, violence, and misery of the CR were neatly blamed on the “Gang of Four” that had been expected to succeed the Chairman. The following year, Deng Xiaoping emerged as China’s new, modernizing leader, ushering in the era of pragmatic economic expansion and relative cultural freedom that lasted (despite the cataclysm of the June 4th 1989 movement) until the onset of the increasingly repressive Xi Jinping era in the last decade.

Where in Hero and its ilk Zhang presented grand narratives of national formation enacted by archetypal characters, the director’s CR films tend to be microcosmic psychodramas about individuals whose attempts to find and live in their own personal spaces are hindered by the “big stage” of the historical development of the Chinese nation (a theme that extends to Zhang’s own particular individuality as a creative artist). Notably, these works are obsessed with families being torn apart, which was yet another of the CR’s disastrous legacies: the state’s insistence that revolutionary “enemies” be identified (or manufactured), rooted out, and destroyed led spouses to betray each other and children to renounce (or be forced to renounce) their parents.

The CR first appears in Zhang’s work as one of a series of episodes in the decades-spanning epic To Live; indeed, it was partly the director’s surprisingly incautious depiction of the violence and idiocy of the CR that caused the authorities to ban the film. Over a decade later, Zhang made a cautious return to the CR, in a more elegiac mode, with the youth-romance-cum-fatal-disease melodrama Under the Hawthorn Tree (2010), which used merely one aspect of the CR—the “sending down” of educated urban youth to the countryside to learn proletarian values from peasants—as little more than the inciting narrative device for a tale of two sensitive young lovers who find and ultimately lose each other. 

Coming Home (2014), by contrast, deals far more directly with the trauma the CR inflicted on Chinese families. A “rightist” intellectual (Chen Daoming) escapes from a labour camp only to find that reconstituting the emotional bonds that sustained family life is nearly impossible: his daughter is burdened with guilt for having betrayed him, while his wife (Gong Li) is suffering from a clinical form of trauma-derived national amnesia. Her inability (or refusal) to “recognize” her husband, after his recapture and release from prison, embodies in all-too-concrete form the impossibility of a nation (and Party) coming to terms with its past crimes. Without full access to shared memories, there is no authentic historical reckoning possible; a full “coming home” is perpetually out of reach.

In One Second, Zhang embeds what he has called “a love letter to cinema” (which is more likely a bit of savvy marketing/political speak than a description of what he actually intends the film to be) in a late-CR setting that is strategically vague both chronologically and geographically: following implicit internal dating clues, it seems that the film takes place around 1975 (with an epilogue set in 1977) in an unspecified, Gobi Desert-like zone of China’s Northwest (it was shot around Dunhuang, in Gansu province). That fuzziness extends to the tone as well, as One Second combines the crowd-pleasing comedy of Zhang’s more domestic-facing output with the broken-family drama and historical consciousness of Coming Home. As Zhang navigates between these two modes, the film’s main interest becomes how he seeks to satisfy the expectations of each while still somehow adhering to the censors’ demands (which, in the event, he only barely accomplishes; more on that below).  

One Second opens with a nameless man (played by Jiang Yi, one of China’s best up-and-coming stars) walking towards the camera on a distant, wind-whipped sand dune; though we will never learn his name, we later discover that he is a fugitive from a labour camp, where he was imprisoned for six years. He arrives at a local rural cinema in the evening, just as that night’s audience is departing. Watching a worker loading film canisters onto a motorcycle, the fugitive spies a mop-headed girl, Orphan Liu (an impressive debut by Liu Haocun), stealing a canister and running off. He pursues her and, in a virtually wordless sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in silent cinema, beats her, and retrieves the can. 

Following a series of skirmishes between the two relentless antagonists, it is revealed that each has their own specific (non-cinephilic) use for the film. Liu needs several metres of celluloid to manufacture a lampshade to replace the one her little brother accidentally destroyed, because the young village bullies from whom it was borrowed are making their lives miserable. The fugitive’s needs are more complex: accompanying the main feature screened at the cinema that night was a newsreel which, he has learned, features a very brief appearance (the “one second” of the title) by his daughter, whom he hasn’t seen since he was imprisoned.

The quest to see these crucial few frames of film becomes the driving force of the narrative, as the fugitive and the young orphan follow the film canisters to the next scheduled screening at a rural collective farming hamlet called the Second Unit, where the newsreel is to accompany the classic 1964 war film Heroic Sons and Daughters. There, the fugitive meets his second antagonist-cum-ally: Fan Dianying (played to subtle perfection by Fan Wei), the projectionist of the Second Unit Cinema, who is identified as “Mr. Movie” in the English subtitles. A beautifully drawn CR victim/perpetrator, Mr. Movie is a born careerist who constantly frames his selfish actions in Maoist jargon (with lots of appeals to “revolutionary comrades,” etc.) and is capable of simultaneously sympathizing with and ruthlessly betraying the fugitive when the latter seeks his aid in locating the newsreel. 

The “love letter to cinema” aspect of One Second (which raises unfortunate memories of the cloying sentimentality of Cinema Paradiso) comes courtesy of Mr. Movie, whose almost holy regard for cinema plays out in fascinating ways. When the newsreel itself is found, filthy and scratched from having been inadvertently dragged behind a donkey cart on its way to the Second Unit, Mr. Movie declares that it can still be cleaned and shown. This leads to the film’s most brilliant set piece: in the space behind the Second Unit theatre screen, Mr. Movie organizes the enthusiastic village folk (who seem to desperately cling to their bimonthly screening) into a cleaning brigade, untangling the filmstrip, hanging it up and rinsing, wiping, and drying it under his hyper-obsessive tutelage. There is a lot going on in this sequence, what with a charismatic leader inspiring and disciplining his totally obedient admirers into heroic acts of coordinated collective effort. Is Mr. Movie a mini-Mao, or perhaps a mini-Zhang? 

The way Zhang photographs this sequence is extraordinary, particularly given his inclinations as of late. Where those Riefenstahlian made-for-TV Olympic pageants or the endless, multi-coloured regiments of peons brandishing weapons in The Great Wall presented oppressive, hugely scaled shots of coordinated mass action, Zhang here eschews his trademark symmetrical framing for detailed, deep-space shots of people working in harmony as individuals—most notably a dreamlike, transportingly lovely shot of the women of the Second Unit bathed in an otherworldly semi-light as they wave their small fans at the suspended filmstrips, each in different postures and moving with different rhythms. This is a vision of collective work, coordinated and effective, absent the fascistic undertones of regimented, lock-step action. 

While there is certainly a suggestion here of a more utopian imagining of social solidarity, much of this sequence plays as a comically exaggerated vision of a collective totally, unquestioningly devoted to a single goal. Similarly, the audience’s mesmerized silence at the screening that follows (apart from a group sing-a-long at the feature’s designated song break) indicates that there may be something of a sardonic tinge to Zhang’s “love letter” to the communal experience of film-viewing (remember what that was like?). The true subject and the emotional core of One Second is rather an individualized attachment to the cinema, telescoping from the all-encompassing reverence of Mr. Movie to the fugitive’s laser focus on those few frames of his daughter in the newsreel—which, courtesy of Mr. Movie, he first watches on a loop in the projection booth, then again sitting alone in the cinema after the audience has left.    

With the fugitive, we watch these ghostly glimpses that serve as a replacement for a lost whole: images of his daughter staggering under the burden of heavy sacks of flour, demonstrating the persistence of her revolutionary fervour (“struggle” is the Maoist term) in order to efface the shame of whatever “crime” her father committed (fighting a Red Guard, he says at one point). Even as it is strongly suggested that the girl is dead (possibly as a result of the very activity depicted in the newsreel), there is an entire affective world captured in this one-second fragment: the life of a 14-year-old girl, and the love her father still bears for her. If all one has left of a loved one is a memory token that can be glimpsed but not held, then an endless loop of glimpses is both relief and endless torment, an unceasing reminder that the very thing you cherish is always out of reach—fetish as synecdoche. That looped revivification is ultimately reduced to two frames snipped from the filmstrip which Mr. Movie tries to stuff into the fugitive’s pocket as local security goons apprehend him, but even that evanescent token of reminiscence is to be denied him.   

As a metaphor of mourning and melancholia, One Second’s quasi-cinephilic conceit is dramatically riveting; as a metonymic substitute for a memory-recovery pain that several generations of Chinese citizens have not yet been allowed to collectively experience, it is a veiled yet unmistakably forthright demand. Moreover, it is a demand that the many layers of the Chinese state censorship apparatus seem to have at least dimly grasped, albeit not all at the same time. The film was approved and then yanked repeatedly and (for the authorities) embarrassingly from its scheduled festival premieres: first from the Berlinale in 2019, then from the state-run Golden Rooster Film Festival in November 2020. Despite that second cancellation, it was nevertheless released domestically a few days later, so that even after the reported cuts and reshoots (including, presumably, the ambivalent epilogue back in the Gansu desert), Chinese audiences were still able to enjoy Zhang’s tragicomic take on a painful era of their history. At the same time, One Second may allow them to reflect on how much is at stake in who gets to make images, and who has the power to decide which of those images can be seen.

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