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Unlike his fellow ‘Fifth Generation’ graduates from the Beijing Film Academy, Zhang Yimou felt no need to begin his directorial career with films either literally or metaphorically about the Cultural Revolution. Most of the others had been zhiqing, ‘educated youth’ who ran wild as Red Guards in 1966/67 and were brought under control by being ‘sent down’ to remote areas of the countryside, where their faith in Maoism was, shall we say, challenged. Zhang’s experience was different. He was pulled out of middle-school in Xi’an and sent to labour in the fields for three years, then assigned to a textile mill for seven more. This was because of his ‘bad class background’: his father had been an officer in the anti-communist Nationalist army, and close relatives had fled to Taiwan with that army in 1949. In One Second (the title is a literal translation of the Chinese, Yi Miao Zhong) he has finally made a Cultural Revolution film. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it has a protagonist who is a ‘bad element’.
The film is Zhang’s third adaptation from the fictions of Chinese-American writer Geling Yan, whose name is missing from the credits because she’s been ‘cancelled’ since criticising Xi Jinping’s policies. (The previous two were The Flowers of War, 2011, and Coming Home, 2014.) The unnamed protagonist is an escapee from a labour camp, first seen hungry and thirsty as he struggles across the endless dunes of the Gobi Desert to a small town; he immediately heads for the cinema and sees an unkempt girl steal one reel of film from the knapsack of the motorcycle courier who is due to carry the print to the next town. The evolving relationship between the fugitive and the child (known locally as ‘Orphan Liu’) turns out to be one of the film’s two story arcs, but the main one centres on the fugitive’s determination to watch a current cinema newsreel – because he’s been told that it contains a one-second glimpse of the daughter who disowned him after he was arrested.
The main body of the narrative, of course, is devoted to setting up obstacles to (a) the relationship and (b) the film viewing, and then finding ways around them. This being a Zhang Yimou film, it’s equally devoted to providing the director with the visual opportunities he relishes: vistas of the treacherous desert dunes and the dirt-tracks between settlements, a long sequence showing the whole community pitching in to salvage a reel of unspooled 35mm film that has been dragged along a road by gently cleaning and drying it, ribbons of film criss-crossing the booth when the projectionist invents a way of screening the crucial fragment of newsreel as a loop. A parallel is drawn between the feature being screened (Wu Zhaodi’s Heroic Sons and Daughters, 1964, based on a story by Ba Jin about a soldier’s reunion with a daughter who was given up for adoption at birth) and One Second itself, with Orphan Liu becoming a surrogate for the daughter the fugitive has lost.
What shines through it all is how much it means to Zhang himself, with unmistakeable evocations of his early films. The fugitive (played by Zhang Yi) looks very much like one of the convicts in the first film Zhang photographed, Zhang Junzhao’s The One and the Eight (1984), and even looks and sounds a little like the young Jiang Wen, the lead actor in Red Sorghum (1987). The way the character overcomes his ‘bad element’ background matches Zhang’s own trajectory. The festooned strips of film hanging to dry resemble the bolts of dyed cloth in Ju Dou (1990). There are also visual reminiscences of The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) and To Live (1994), making the whole thing something of a return to roots.
Sadly, what we’re seeing is not exactly the film Zhang made. Shot in 2018, it was announced as a competition title for Berlin in February 2019, only to be pulled “for technical reasons” at very short notice. It took some 19 months to revise the film to the Beijing Film Bureau’s specifications, deleting various details and adding a new sentimental coda, plus shots alongside the end credits of Zhang’s latest discovery Liu Haocun (Orphan Liu) recording a bittersweet title song. Zhang had tried to head off objections by imagining a more prosperous setting than any real town of the period (decent food, plentiful bicycles), but his underlying intentions just about survive.
► One Second is available to stream on MUBI now.