One Second Image

One Second

By Alan Ng | November 14, 2021

AFI FEST 2021 REVIEW! Yimou Zhang’s One Second is an odd-little film about the power of cinema and its sway over communities and individuals. The story opens at a gas stop on a long desert road in China. Our protagonist (Zhang Yi) spots a young girl (Haocun Liu) stealing one of the film canisters from a courier heading towards the movie house several miles away. In an elaborate series of events, the man chases the girl down, and the two get into a fight over the reel.

Ultimately the girl gets away, and the man arrives in town. He spots the girl and notifies Mr. Movie, the government-appointed projectionist, that she stole one of his film reels. Soon everyone’s problems intensify as the truck carrying the reels — intended for the town’s weekly cinema night — arrives, and one of the reels unraveled and was being dragged behind the truck.

One Second takes place not long after China’s cultural revolution in a remote desert village. The town presents the poverty much of China experienced after the revolution and how movies were a way to inspire small moments of hope in a bleak situation — even if the films were more communist propaganda in nature. Movies were the only form of entertainment that could pull citizens away for an hour or so.

“…the man chases the girl down, and the two get into a fight over the film reel.”

For Mr. Movie, his role as theater manager gave him official government status in town. Due to his high status and the damage to the reel, he announces that movie night has been canceled until a replacement reel can be retrieved. The town almost revolts, and Mr. Movie inspires the people to band together to repair and clean the damaged film.

One Second is essentially the story of the nameless protagonist and the young homeless girl. The protagonist recently escaped from a Chinese labor camp. He is so adamant about catching the homeless girl because she stole a newsreel which shows the protagonist’s daughter for one second. The girl, on the other hand, stole the newsreel as a gift for her younger brother. The two live in a makeshift shelter, and celluloid, as in the tangible strips of film, hold a special place in their hearts. For the protagonist, this one second was his only connection/memory of his daughter and getting it was worth adding years to his prison sentence.

Of course, over the 104 minutes the narrative plays out, the two become friends and offer something the other has been looking for. Yes, stories like this have been told before, but there’s an earnest, sweet charm to it all that really works. Plus, the reasons everyone needs this reel make total sense and adds true depth to each arc, no matter how minor. Plus, the leads play well off each other.

Yimou Zhang’s film is about these two souls whose lives go down a somewhat tragic path, but the developing friendship between the escaped prisoner and homeless girl forms the relatable heart of One Second. The story reminds me of a very pared-down version of Les Misérables, as things are never as they seem.

One Second screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2021 AFI Fest.

One Second (2021)

Directed: Yimou Zhang

Written: Yimou Zhang, Jingzhi Zou

Starring: Zhang Yi, Haocun Liu, etc.

Movie score: 7/10

One Second Image

"…an earnest, sweet charm to it all..."

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