The vistas in this are stunning. You forget just how vast China is, seeing a big ole country on a map doesn’t properly convey that this stretches from mountains to rainforest to desert. One Second is set on an immense desert steppe, and the panoramas are just spectacular.
Set in the 60s under Mao’s rule, the film follows Zhang Jiusheng, an escapee from a labour camp. He has travelled across the desert to see a film, one which is prefaced with a newsreel showing his daughter, who he has not seen in 8 years. Unfortunately for him, a young dishevelled girl, Orphan Liu swipes a film cannister and makes off. Zhang has to track her down and retrieve the cannister.
The centre of One Second is the cinema experience in the 60s. Because of government control, there would only be about one movie a month, and it would be a propaganda film, and it would tour from town to town. So when a new film arrived, it was a big deal. One Second shows practically the whole town stopping to pour into the town hall, bringing their own chairs, sitting or standing in every available space. They put up a projector screen, and the projectionist is god as he loads the film ready to show.
One Second is embedded with a love of this experience, even as it is aware of the darkness of these times. Zhang’s story is tragic, losing years of his life seperated from his family. Liu’s life is blighted with the kind of stone-hard poverty the revolution was meant to erase. Both represent the failing and crimes of the Mao era.
Yet when that film comes on, and lights up all those faces, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that the film is propaganda, it doesn’t matter that it’s one of only a handful they get to see, it doesn’t matter that they’re crowded in with hardly anywhere to sit. They light up with delight, are transported, are given respite from their daily woes, given an escape. They cheer at the high points and weep at the lows, and sing along with the songs, and leave feeling lifted. Whatever the darkness that surrounds it, their love of cinema is real.
One Second is a moving, beautiful, and at times funny film.
P.S. This film clearly has an ending, then another ending that the Chinese government has made them tack on, basically saying things are fine now. A bit like how the bleak crime noir Back to the Wharf has a blank end screen with text on it saying the government eventually brought everyone to justice. Just ignore that.