“One Second” A Chinese Censored Love Letter To A Reel

In the realm of films hailed as heartfelt tributes to the world of cinema, few embody this sentiment as profoundly as Zhang Yimou’s masterpiece, “One Second.” This captivating narrative unfolds around a village united by a singular mission: the restoration of a film reel that suffered the indignity of being unfurled and dragged through mud during its delivery. As the villagers gather in solemn reverence around the soiled celluloid, it’s as though they’re mourning a departed soul. Zhang’s meticulous eye captures every intricate detail of the process – the delicate untangling, the careful cleansing – as resident projectionist “Mr. Movie” (portrayed by the remarkable Fan Wei) imparts his wisdom on the proper handling of this precious artifact.

The film in question is none other than the 1964 gem, “Heroic Sons and Daughters,” a tale of an army officer who serendipitously reunites with the child he had relinquished 18 years prior. This child, by a twist of fate, had become the adopted sibling of his fallen comrade. While watching “One Second,” the inner narrative of “Heroic Sons and Daughters” remains elusive, yet the contextual layers add a profound depth to the overarching story.

In the heart of this quaint town, a stranger shrouded in mystery (expertly portrayed by Zhang Yi) emerges as the most fervent advocate for the film’s restoration and screening. We eventually learn that he is an escapee from a nearby prison farm, driven by the singular purpose of reuniting with his estranged daughter, glimpsed somewhere within the newsreel preceding the feature presentation. His desperate flight from the prison was solely orchestrated to bridge the chasm that separated him from his precious child.

Simultaneously, the local gamine known as “Orphan Liu” (skillfully brought to life by Liu Haocun) becomes an unexpected player in this intricate tapestry. Her aspirations involve repurposing segments of the film strip into a captivating lampshade. However, her relentless pursuit of this cinematic relic continually thrusts her into discord with the enigmatic fugitive, adding another layer of tension and intrigue to the narrative.

In the delicate interplay of emotions, aspirations, and the threads of fate, “One Second” transports us beyond the realm of celluloid and into the very essence of human connection and longing. Zhang Yimou’s cinematic prowess is unparalleled, using this tale to articulate a profound love letter to the medium that has shaped our hearts and minds for generations.

One Second is a Chinese censored film and it is a love letter to a reel

Romanticism to Pragmatism It Mirrors the Vast Spectrum of Human Experiences

The anonymity or use of pseudonyms for the three central characters in the story contributes profoundly to the fable-like atmosphere, imbuing each of them with the resonance of archetypes. “Mr. Movie” embodies an unadulterated reverence for the art of film, finding pride and fulfillment in his craft as a projectionist. The fugitive, on the other hand, hungers for the morsels of information that the newsreel can provide, even if those morsels are veiled in propaganda and scarce in substance. As for Liu, her pragmatic connection to the physicality of celluloid reflects a stark practicality. Her motives stand in stark contrast to Mr. Movie’s romanticism and the fugitive’s yearning. In this way, the film brilliantly explores various facets of human connection to art, encapsulating an amalgamation of contrasting perspectives.

The film’s narrative brings to mind the melancholic anecdote of Georges Méliès’ precious films being melted down to craft boot heels, as portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.” Zhang Yimou’s creation similarly revolves around characters struggling within their impoverished circumstances, entwined in intricate relationships with art. Yet, this film takes a more unvarnished and pragmatic approach, shying away from sentimentality to delve into a raw portrayal of their experiences.

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Nonetheless, it’s evident that Zhang’s deepest empathy resonates with Mr. Movie’s perspective. As the pivotal moment arrives, where the screening of “Heroic Sons and Daughters” becomes reality, Zhang finds innovative ways to rekindle the waning notion of the “magic” within the act of watching movies. Before the curtain rises, the fugitive stands concealed behind the screen, while patrons engage in whimsical shadow puppetry upon its surface – a captivating representation of the collective community basking in a shared sense of joy. Simultaneously, the fugitive’s presence evokes a poignant sense of detachment from this communal revelry, underscoring his melancholic isolation.

In this intricate interplay of artistic devotion, personal longing, and communal celebration, “One Second” emerges as a compelling narrative that resonates far beyond its celluloid confines. The film’s ability to encapsulate an array of emotions, from romanticism to pragmatism, mirrors the vast spectrum of human experiences and our intricate relationship with the world of art. Zhang Yimou masterfully weaves a tapestry where the threads of each character’s journey converge, creating a mesmerizing tableau that invites us to reflect on our own connections to the realm of creativity and expression.

Cover of One Second (2020)
Cover of One Second (2020)

Seamless Narrative Flows

“One Second” finally graced audiences more than two years after its intended debut at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival. The journey from its initial plans to the eventual screening has been a circuitous one. In the interim, the film underwent reediting and even some reshooting, reportedly driven by content-related requisites from the Chinese government. Intriguingly, the current version of the film stands merely a minute shorter than its previously listed runtime during the Berlin Festival. The veil of secrecy shrouds the precise nature of the alterations, known only to those intimately involved in its creation and the bureaucratic echelons. Yet, it’s a testament to the deft skills of Zhang Yimou and editor Yuan Du that, regardless of the extent of these adjustments, the resulting narrative flows seamlessly.

The realm of possibilities is expansive, especially given the backdrop of the politically charged Cultural Revolution in which the story is set. Amidst the film’s underlying romanticism, one can discern subtle critiques that resonate still – whether it’s the townsfolk singing along to the movie’s propagandistic tunes or the tranquil demeanor of a group of police officers watching it again after an episode of brutality against prisoners. The enigmatic alterations made behind the scenes provide a realm of intrigue and speculation, yet the cinematic outcome maintains its lucid perspective while remaining a heartfelt homage to the world of film, just as Zhang Yimou had always envisioned.

As the narrative threads of “One Second” intertwine, encompassing political sensitivities, personal connections, and the enduring allure of cinema, the film emerges as an intricate tapestry. It’s a poignant reminder of the power of storytelling and the resilience of artistic expression even in the face of challenging circumstances. Zhang’s unwavering dedication to his craft shines through, resulting in a work that continues to celebrate the essence of cinema while reflecting the complex layers of the world it both mirrors and shapes.

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In the realm of films hailed as heartfelt tributes to the world of cinema, few embody this sentiment as profoundly as Zhang Yimou's masterpiece, "One Second." This captivating narrative unfolds around a village united by a singular mission: the restoration of a film reel...“One Second” A Chinese Censored Love Letter To A Reel