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MOVIES (GFF 2022): One Second - Review

Zhang Yimou’s One Second has undergone a turbulent release schedule that made the wait for it seem eternal – pulled at the last second from its original Berlinale festival screening back in 2019 and censored by the Chinese Government, we are eventually given a version that two years later, may not exactly fit in with the original release of the master’s work, but is still very good – and reminds you that the director is massively undervalued among his fellow western contemporaries - it's still kind of damning that the film is only now finally getting some kind of festival release in the United Kingdom, whether that translates to a wider release remains to be seen.

There are echoes of the Coen Brothers in a wonderfully brilliant opening scene set in rural China – a man escapes from a labour camp, and witnesses a girl posing as a boy steal a movie reel with the intention of making the film into a lampshade. He chases the girl to get it back and a series of comic events ensue as they both wind up in the same truck and are passed by a motorcycle that won’t slow down – but it quickly becomes apparent why the man wants the reel so badly: it contains a news archive footage of his daughter who he hasn’t seen in several years, having been cut off from his family when he was sentenced to prison.

The harshness and depiction of poverty and brutality caused by the Cultural Revolution is unfiltered for much of the film’s runtime, save for a tacked on superficial two years later flashforward that’s worth skipping on its own for a more powerful ending that comes just before it kicks in. The film feels like a movie about cinema that has not been addressed in quite as much exquisite detail and passion since the heyday of Truffaut’s Day for Night or Cinema Paradiso, a real-love letter that showcases just how much movies mean to small towns in that era, you get to see how much the cinema projectionist – Mr. Movie, is adored by the villagers around him despite the fact that the town only gets the same movie every other time it gets a new copy. But as well as addressing cinema as a tool for inspiration and community it looks at how it can be used as a tool for propaganda – the newsreels that come before the film an indication as such, and at once One Second feels like a two-pronged attack, both a love letter and a condemnation.

The performances are fantastic – Yimou spares no expense justifying why some people may choose to cooperate and why some may not – anchored by Liu Haocun, Zhang Yi and Fan Wei Yimou crafts an all star ensemble that bring their absolute A-Game to the table. The relentless drive in Yi’s portrayal of Zhang Jiusheng to survive and achieve is heartbreaking to watch, the bond with Haocun’s Orphan Liu too develops naturally and feels like the best of the fake father trope that Cinema Paradiso, Paper Moon and other such movies of a similiar nature.

Because of the low stakes – comparatively compared to the blockbuster history of Yimou’s previous work, One Second now feels like his most intimate, stripped down and personal movie yet that I've seen – a breather from the grand spectacle of the excellent Shadow, lovingly documenting and painstakingly recreating the passionate construction of cinema projection.

Whilst it is unfortunately shot digitally given its subject matter and love of film, One Second loses none of its staying power because of that, crafting some scenes that instantly leave a mark – if you’re a fan of how movies are made and film preservation you’ll get something out of One Second, with Yimou’s individual landscape shots being a highlight as ever – always completely immersing you in the world that these characters live in and rarely sacrificing character for theme.


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