One Second (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A movie screening in the middle of desert

Chinese film “One Second” works best whenever it focuses on that fascinating power of movie. Although it is a bit too broad and simple in terms of story and characters in my humble opinion, I could not help but amused and touched by one particular scene where the camera looks at many audiences eager to watch a film at the shabby movie theater of their little desert town. As a matter of fact, this moment instantly reminded me of what François Truffaut once said: “The most beautiful sight in a movie theater is to walk down to the front, turn around, and look at the light from the screen reflected on the upturned faces of the members of the audience.”

The movie, which is set during the Cultural Revolution era of the 1960s, mainly revolves around the nameless hero played by Zhang Yi, and the opening scene shows him going through a vast and remote desert area alone by himself. When he subsequently arrives at a village, it turns out that he wanted to attend the local screening of a certain film, but, unfortunately, the screening was already over, and those film reels of that movie are already ready to be delivered to some other village in the area.

Anyway, it seems that all our hero will have to do is accompanying or following after the guy in charge of delivering the film reels to that village, but then there comes a little trouble. He happens to spot someone attempting to take one of the film reels, so he instantly follows after this figure, and, to his surprise, this figure turns out to be a young girl. He manages to retrieve the film reel from the girl, but then, to our little amusement, the situation goes wrong for him, and he only ends up arriving at that village without the film reel.

Meanwhile, everyone in that village is looking forward to watching the movie, though they already watched it more than once. The guy in charge of the movie projector is enjoying all the attention he can get from others in the village, but then it turns out that there is another problem besides that stolen reel. While that stolen reel is fortunately returned to the movie projector guy thanks to our hero’s accidental encounter with the girl in the village, the propaganda newsreel part preceding the film itself happened to be severely tarnished and entangled during the delivery process, and this must be untangled and cleaned up as soon as possible because of being the mandatory part of the upcoming screening.

What follows next is pretty amusing to say the least. Under the command and guidance of the movie projector guy, lots of village people embark on a makeshift film restoration process, and the movie has a lot of small fun with this rather crude but fairly effective work process. After they carefully untangled the tarnished film reel step by step, they hang it on clotheslines for getting it cleaned up by distilled water frame by frame (How they get distilled water is one of little nice touches in the film, by the way), and you may chuckle a bit as watching how they later try to dry it before spooling it in the end.

Meanwhile, there is still some tension between our hero and the girl, who finds herself getting involved with him more than she wanted. When he comes to learn more of her desperate daily life, he feels sorry for her, but he is more occupied with getting what he wants from the upcoming screening. He is actually not interested in the movie itself at all, but he really wants to watch the newsreel part for a personal reason, and he is determined to get what he wants by any means necessary.

Although the drama between our hero and the girl is rather contrived, the movie continues to engage us as paying attention to small details involved with the movie screening. You may feel some nostalgia as observing the movie projector guy working a bit on his old movie projector before the screening is finally started, and the audiences’ active reactions to the whatever is projected on the screen will surely remind you of why we go to movie theater, though that is not that possible at present due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Mainly due to its weak characterization, the movie stumbles more than once around the finale and the following epilogue scene, and I do not think the epilogue scene works as well as intended, but there are still lots of things to admire thanks to director Zhang Yimou’s unadorned but competent direction. He and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding often fill the screen with dry and stark ambiance via wide shots of desert landscapes, and that further accentuates its main characters’ despair and desperation. While Zhang Yi functions as the stoic center of the film as required, Liu Haocun’s plucky acting ably complements her co-star’s low-key performance, and Fan Wei is also effective as revealing some human depth inside his seemingly pompous supporting character.

On the whole, “One Second” is a minor work in Zhang’s long filmmaking career, but I admire it to some degree because its simple but intimate drama sometimes reminded me of his notable early works such as “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991) and “The Story of Qui Ju” (1992). Although he has usually made bigger movies such as “Hero” (2002), “Curse of the Golden Flower” (2006), and “Shadow” (2018) these days, he still can go back to his old territory as previously shown from “Coming Home” (2014), and I can only hope that he will do that more frequently.

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