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TIFF 2021: One Second Review

Sometimes a movie isn’t just a movie.

If eyes are the gateway to the soul, then the pictures dancing across the silver screen commune with our spirit. Movies speak to the very core of our being, making theatres our church, our temple, our divine palace. Cinema challenges, inspires, and fills us with wonder.

Early on in One Second, we watch a nameless man (Zhang Yi) risk life and limb crossing the desert for a dusty reel of film. He may as well be Arthur pursuing the holy grail. The film in question is a newsreel that touts his daughter as a model citizen.

The nameless man is not a model citizen, having broken out of a labour camp to lay eyes upon his daughter for the first time in years. Avoiding capture and watching the news clip should be a piece of cake, but the universe has other plans when a plucky street-kid named Orphan Liu (Liu Haocun) makes off with a reel.


In a series of Tom and Jerry-like reversals, the escapee and Orphan Liu keep capturing and losing the reel until it falls into the hands of a man named Mr. Movie (Fan Wei), a hotshot projectionist who holds screenings for his poor village. The prized newsreel is set to run before the next show, but the evening’s feature was damaged on its way to town. So the fugitive, Orphan Liu, and the whole village join forces to repair the battered celluloid in order to make movie night happen.

Director Yimou Zhang’s historical drama One Second is a beautifully crafted reverie to the power of cinema. It’s also unapologetically sentimental, toeing a razor-thin line between earnest and cloying.

Zhang is known for directing ambitious period pieces with epic plots, sweeping cinematography, and dazzling production design. One Second falls in line with his previous work, albeit scaled back. Most of the film takes place in a ramshackle, though vividly rendered desert town. Cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao’s arresting visuals create a sense of grandeur, whether shooting searing desert vistas or a cramped make-shift movie theatre.

Yi and Haocun’s playful chemistry is a joy to watch. They begin the film as antagonists, their conflict exuding a frantic odd-couple energy straight out of a slapstick comedy. As the story progresses, revealing Liu’s tragic past, their relationship takes on a deeper resonance. Is their emotional journey woefully predictable? Sure. But by the time Loudboy’s swelling score kicks in, you’ll be too choked up to care.


One Second is a heartfelt tribute to the power of cinema, but the film’s themes run darker than its chipper synopsis would have you believe. Zhang and co-writer Jingzhi Zou are most interested in spotlighting the lives of those oppressed by an autocratic regime. The film’s entire plot hinges on a fugitive hellbent on watching a state propaganda newsreel. The fact that the whole village is scrambling to save a propaganda film (Heroic Sons and Daughters) tells you all you need to know.

Despite its dark undertones, One Second filled me with the same warm, sentimental vibes I get from watching classic films—imagine Cinema Paradiso but with the melancholic undertones of Life is Beautiful.

One Second was set to debut at Berlinale in 2019 before getting yanked last minute for “technical problems.” In reality, the move screams that the Chinese sensors weren’t happy with the film’s unflattering depiction of China’s Cultural Revolution. At times you get a sense of the searing political commentary One Second could have been, even as Zhang pulls his punches.

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