Film Review – One Second (2020)

Zhang Yomou's One Second (2020)

The power of film can truly accomplish wonderful things. It can excite, immerse, and intrigue you, and it can even make you feel happy or angry. It has the ability to provoke emotions in people, as seen in Zhang Yimou‘s One Second (2020), and it can bring communities together.

Yimou is one of the very few Chinese filmmakers that western cinephiles can watch with little difficulty, even though his last attempt at Hollywood cinema, The Wall, was a box office flop. However, if you watch the film without the propaganda, which is probably the reason why it took so long to be released in the West, you might appreciate its artistic merit. The film was initially pulled from the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, as well as several other festivals, and reappeared a couple of years later with “technical difficulties” cited as the reason for the delay.

It is now 2023, and both Damien Chazelle’s Babylon and Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans are considered “love letters” to cinema. What a perfect time to review One Second, which was released on the MUBI streaming service in late 2022.

I watched this film originally at last year’s (2022) Glasgow Film Festival. Remembering the power of film and how it appears on the big screen gives us a sense of community, of coming together. Not the big blockbusters that dominate cinemas now, nor the multiplex cinemas that have replaced your local cinema. Those screens knew that when a big film arrived, it was an event that saw locals come out in numbers. Enjoying something together, these events are rarely seen these days.

One Second is based on Geling Yan’s novel, which is set in a remote part of China, possibly the Gobi Desert. It’s 1975, and the country’s Cultural Revolution is taking place. We meet a nameless man (played by Zhang Yi) who we learn has escaped from a labor camp and seems to be on a mission. He’s chasing one person, Mr. Movie (Fan Wei), the projectionist who is popular with the locals. Mr. Movie is a loyal party man who brings propaganda films to the people.

The film that the people are looking forward to watching is “Heroic Sons and Daughters,” which also comes with a new reel. The whole community comes out in large numbers to watch the film together and to see what is happening in the rest of China. When the nameless man catches up with the projectionist, he spots a street orphan girl (Liu Haocun) stealing one of the reels. He pursues the girl to retrieve the stolen reel and give it to Mr. Movie, who is now in the next village. Disaster strikes when the other reels spool and get damaged.

Panic and anger strike everyone, which pushes the whole village to come together and clean, as well as repair, the celluloid. The villagers want their movie night to happen, and so does the nameless man. What are his motives, as well as the orphan girl’s motives?

One Second is a celebration of film and humanity. Putting aside any issues with politics, cinema is a powerful tool that brings communities together. Watching the magic of film transpire on the screen does wonders mentally to the human psyche. When I watched this film, people were slowly returning to cinemas and going back outside. Interacting with people once again to engage and share an experience like coming together to watch a film on a cinema screen.

For the past few decades, Hollywood has tried to create franchises around comic books and video games to bring those fandoms together in the hope of creating communities once again. However, unless you are already part of those fandoms, they can feel ‘alien’ or stagnant. Zhang Yimou‘s One Second, on the other hand, embraces communities coming together for an event and the magic of cinema. It is a beautifully shot film that celebrates the magic and joy of coming together for a shared experience.


Drama, Comedy | China, 2020 | 15 | MUBI | Dir.Zhang Yimou | Yi Zhang,  Haocun Liu, Wei Fan 

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