At one point the most celebrated and revered member of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, Zhang Yimou has since turned into an equally notorious example of submitting to a repressive system for the sake of survival as an artist, if necessarily a diminished one. Younger film aficionados mainly identify him as a maker of large-scale entertainments in the wuxia style, though older movie fans probably mark his turning point as accepting the role of the artistic director of the Beijing Olympics, both the 2008 and 2022 versions. As such, these jobs supposedly revealed his latent nationalism, an opinion that was bolstered by movies like Hero or, more critically, his Hollywood co-production The Great Wall.
In his latest offering, One Second, Zhang returns to the theme that first made him internationally famous—a stubborn will to live in the face of hardship. It’s a theme that’s inherently sentimental, and as such the movie’s most direct cognate is his 1999 feature The Road Home, which not only sealed his reputation on the festival circuit, but made a superstar out of Zhang Ziyi. More to the point, Zhang places the narrative at the center of the Cultural Revolution in such a way as to show that the resilience on display is in reaction to pressures brought to bear by the government’s brutal social engineering plans. Reading several reviews of the film I noted that, while Zhang still seems to enjoy the authorities’ favor, One Second was pulled from festivals before it could be screened.
The movie is also about movies in the most elemental way. An escapee from a farm prison, Zhang (Zhang Li), crosses the desert on foot to watch a movie in a backwater town. When he arrives, however, he learns that he is too late. The screening, which is carried out by a local workers unit, has already concluded, the film reels packed up and ready to go to the next town. While trying to learn more, Zhang notices an unkempt waif, Liu (Liu Haocun), steal one of the film cans from the delivery motorcycle and pursues her. What ensues for the next half hour is an almost slapstick level cat-and-mouse game, as the film cannister changes hands between Zhang and Liu as they make their way to the next town, where, as it happens, Liu lives in abject destitution with her younger brother.
Certainly the story’s most striking impression is how central movie-going is to the people who live in this place (Hebei Province in the middle of nowhere) at this particular time (the 70s, I would guess). When the film that is in the can falls out and ends up being dragged through the dirt for many kilometers, it arrives in the town scratched and grimy, but the dedicated, resourceful projectionist, Fan (Fan Wei), afraid that he has a potential riot on his hands, enlists the entire town to restore the film to at least a screenable state. As it turns out, Zhang the fugitive’s self-imposed mission is to see this particular segment, a boilerplate newsreel in which his estranged daughter supposedly appears as an ideal student. The upshot is that because of his “crime” (the preternaturally hotheaded Zhang assaulted a Red Army soldier) his wife was compelled to divorce him and his daughter forced to denounce and disown him. The “one second” of his daughter on the reel is the only chance he may ever have to see her again.
Zhang’s script skillfully taps this theme of parental despair as a contrasting motif to Liu’s story of parental abandonment. Not yet an adolescent, she cares for her younger brother by stealing and scheming. Though Zhang the director does not overtly try to make the claim that both Zhang the protagonist and Liu are victims of a “system,” it’s clear as the movie develops and becomes at once more melodramatic and viscerally exciting they are dealing with their situations, emotionally and practically, the only way they can. Zhang stages the action with an economical efficiency that proves he still sees himself as a technician first, but the movie’s power as pure cinema also shows that his artistic vision is undiminished, regardless of what uses it serves.
In Mandarin. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868—5024).
One Second home page in Japanese
photo (c) Huanxi Media Group Limited