I’m probably not alone in harking back to the early films of Zhang Yimou, rather neglecting his ouevre since then. While he later turned to glossy big-budget blockbusters, he still made more affecting films like Not one less (1999), The road home (1999), and Coming home (2014).
I admired his recent film
- One Second (Yimiaozhong 一秒钟, 2020).
Set in the sand dunes of the barren northwest during the later years of the Cultural Revolution, it was filmed in Dunhuang (for Li Ruijun’s movies set in Gansu, see Fly with the crane and Return to dust, the latter post suggesting further links on life there).
Described as Zhang’s “personal love-letter to cinema”, One second has thus been likened to Cinema paradiso, but while both are set against the backdrop of a repressive regime, Zhang’s film is more permeated by pain. The main character is a fugitive from a state labour camp, desperate to catch a tiny glimpse of his long-lost daughter in a newsreel. His quest is hindered and helped by a young orphan urchin girl and “Mr Movie”, the projectionist responsible for the mobile cinema touring the desert towns; after the rather farcical mood of the opening sequence, their changing relationships become quite affecting. Most poetic are scenes of the villagers mobilised to clean and restore the damaged celluloid—a metaphor both for individual striving and for the herculean yet largely futile mass projects of Maoism.
Like Return to dust, the film has also fallen foul of the censors, despite international acclaim. Sensitivities perhaps concerned the Uyghur issue, as well as renewed caution about exposing the indignities of the Cultural Revolution. However the film has been re-edited, it looks to navigate political anxieties rather cleverly—the ending, as hope dawns with the collapse of Maoism, is almost saccharine. But as Cath Clarke observes in her review,
With all the tinkering and tweaks, what censors haven’t been able to expunge is the torment and suffering on the face of Zhang Yi’s political prisoner; this is a deeply felt film, grief and pain go to the bone.
I got to watch it on Mubi. Here’s a trailer: