2020’s Chinese film “One Second” by meritorious director Yimou Zhang conveys the magical obsession to a cinema reel. Though it succeeds in portraying the mood and atmosphere vividly but does not succeed in the merit of story and acting.
Yimou has always dazzled the cinematic world with his charismatic depiction of expression on the screen (with a capital “F”), beautiful photography (by his long-time collaborator Xiaoding Zhao), and credible depictions of the environment with complete scenography and period costumes.
The script of One Second (2020) is written by the director himself in collaboration with Jingzhi Zou. And it is based on an original novel by Gelin Yan. The story is set in the backdrop of China’s cultural revolution from 1966 to 1976 where the main characters withhold important information that would probably have solved several problems in a second.
Despite the storytelling and performances “One second” succeeds in the most important thing, namely conveying the excitement and expectations in a cinema hall when darkness descends and the screen lights up with vivid images.
The Story of A Stolen Film
The drama begins when the traveling man Zhang Yi who witnesses the orphan girl Liu stealing a reel of film that is on its way to a cinema in the neighboring town.
Zhang Yi rushes to catch up with Liu, which takes them across a desert, among other things. He is very concerned about getting the film back so that he can transport it to the right addressee. And the reasons for his chase behind the film are gradually revealed.
When they finally arrive in the city, called “Unit 2”, they face new challenges with the strict cinema operator, “Mr. Film”.
He seems to involve himself with the entire local population in the fight to save tonight’s cinema screening. Especially because, it is the first in two months for a cinema audience very hungry for new, visual impulses.
The Motives Behind Chase for The Reel
The starting point of the story probably seems a bit thin and far-fetched, apparently, why Liu got so far as to get hold of the reel of film.
All three main characters in the film are depicted with understandable motives for their actions. However, their incomprehensible withholding of important information creates difficulties that could easily have been avoided. But it might feel like there are more smacks of script-related emergency solutions than credible storytelling.
Perhaps the international audience like me is also affected by cultural differences because Chinese acting and storytelling techniques are sometimes characterized by an obviousness that can seem a little foreign to our eyes.
Therefore, it can be challenging to be sufficiently gripped by the story, even when Yimou Zhang turns on his emotional means.
The Film Is a Love Letter to The Reel
“One Second” is best in its energetic depictions of the crowded cinema hall. There is that rush of expectations, and the solemn seriousness that descends when the lights are dimmed and the screen comes to life.
However, the ending seems like an afterthought, which might be the result of Chinese censorship. The censorship issue might be true to its core as it was pulled from the Berlin International Film Festival at the short and dramatic notice in 2019. However, they showed the world that it was because of “technical reasons”, and have since been re-cut and re-edited.
The original author Gelin Yan’s name has also been removed from the film credit, probably because the Chinese authorities were not satisfied with something or other in the depiction of the country’s Cultural Revolution.
We may never know what Yimou Zhang’s original version was like, but the state-sanctioned version isn’t too bad either. The director himself calls this a love letter to the film and is not difficult to recommend, despite some objections.