THE STORY – A movie fan in a remote farmland strikes a relationship with a homeless female vagabond.
THE CAST – Zhang Yi, Fan Wei & Liu Haocun
THE TEAM – Zhang Yimou (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 104 Minutes
By Zoe Rose Bryant
After rebounding from 2016’s unfortunate sci-fi action fantasy film flop “The Great Wall” with 2018’s cleverly choreographed and skillfully shot wuxia flick “Shadow,” many Zhang Yimou fans have been eagerly awaiting the release of his next feature “One Second,” a story that Zhang touchingly describes as “his tribute to cinema.” Unfortunately, after it was withdrawn from the Berlin Film Festival mere days before its premiere in 2019 for “technical reasons” (a term often used to describe a “need” for additional censorship by the Chinese government), the film was shelved for over two years, with many unsure when – if ever – it would see the light of day. Thankfully, at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Zhang’s latest was finally screened in all its glory, and it represents another affecting achievement for the auteur, overcoming occasionally scattered storytelling thanks to its sheer sentimental pull and three powerful lead performances.
“One Second” is entirely set around the showing of 1964’s “Heroic Sons and Daughters” in a small village, where has everyone has gathered around local projectionist “Mr. Movie” (Fan Wei), who constantly supervises said events. However, this time around, the town is joined by two outsiders: an anonymous fugitive (Zhang Yi), who is eventually revealed to have escaped from a prison farm around these parts, and a young orphan girl (aptly named “Orphan Liu,” and played by Liu Haocun). Each wishes to get their hands on the “Heroic Sons and Daughters” film reel being transported for two separate reasons – the fugitive has heard that his estranged daughter appears for “one second” (hence the title) in the newsreel that plays beforehand. At the same time, the orphan uses film reels to craft homemade lampshades for her younger brother. And yet, neither can get what they want – at least initially – as, when the reel arrives at the village, it’s in tatters, and it’s up to Mr. Movie to lead the town in repairing it before their evening plans commence.
There’s a genuine reverence for film in every frame of “One Second,” and that’s one of the best things that can be said about Zhang’s soulful story here – one in which the medium means something different to every character. Yet, their passions are all equal in potency. For “Orphan Liu,” the central film reel provides comfort – quite literally – in a purely physical sense. For the fugitive, it acts as a preservation of memory, allowing him to revisit scenes and settings that have long left his mind. And, for Mr. Movie, film cultivates a sense of community, something he truly cherishes, as seen by his desire to involve everyone imaginable in the reassembly of the reel. For any cinephile, these scenes of camaraderie and concord, all in the name of cinema, are nothing short of stunning, conveying the captivating pull of celluloid in all its glory. It helps that each of our main actors (Fan, Zhang, and Liu) play their parts to perfection, contrasting with one another in compelling ways and deftly depicting the depth and difference in their desires with persuasive poignancy. They may start at odds with one another, but they gradually come to appreciate and acknowledge their conflicting cravings, noting that the movie is what matters most at the end of the day.
The most affecting arc of all belongs to Zhang, who painstakingly personifies a parent’s longing to see their child for possibly one last time, with no moment being too brief. His anger and aching are so perceptively palpable that we too suffer through this sadness, which is an accomplishment entirely attributable to Zhang’s acting. “One Second” is at its strongest when this arc is front and center, especially as it collides with Mr. Movie’s machinations in town and the two contrasting characters have to come together in order to achieve a common goal. In comparison, the storyline for Orphan Liu is slightly less involving – with one wondering if it might be one conflict too many for quite a crowded film – but it never wholly details the drama in any way. The third act too is somewhat less satisfying than the two that come before, feeling both rushed and underexplored at the same time (to say nothing of an epilogue that seems oddly optimistic given the melancholy of the movie as a whole), but, even if the resolution isn’t as riveting as it should or could be, the character work is too convincing to deny, as are the film’s tender themes.
“One Second” may not scale the heights of some of Zhang Yimou’s most monumental films (“Hero,” “Raise the Red Lantern,” etc.). Still, this impassioned ode to the magic of the motion picture is nevertheless an engaging exploration of the way we all interact with art and the long-lasting impact it can have on our lives. Anchored by expertly emotive acting – particularly from Zhang Yi – and strengthened by a stirring script, the movie ultimately overcomes slight stumbles in its climax thanks to the sheer sincerity of its fondness for film.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Zhang Yimou’s passion for the magic of the motion picture is undeniably powerful, and that reverence shines through in this story. The three central performances – from Fan Wei, Zhang Yi, and Liu Haocun – are all quite compelling, with Zhang serving as the standout.
THE BAD – The storytelling is sometimes scattered – especially near the end – and the epilogue feels like an unnecessary (and oddly optimistic) add-on.