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#TIFF21 Review: One Second (Gala Presentations)

September 19, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The latest film from Chinese director Zhang Yimou, One Second is a pretty wonderful love letter to cinema itself and the travelling picture shows of his youth. Set in China in the 1970s, the engaging plot of One Second follows three people who are all after a reel of film belonging to the 1964 propaganda picture Heroic Sons and Daughters.

Our hero is an unnamed escaped convict from a prison camp (Zhang Yi) who wants to get his hands on the propagandistic newsreel attached to the feature, in hopes that it might contain some footage of his estranged daughter. This puts him in conflict with an orphan girl named Liu (Liu Haocun) who wants the physical celluloid for her own reasons, and a travelling projectionist affectionately called Mr. Movie (Fan Wei), who travels from town to town showing films to the locals and needs the reel for his latest presentation.

There are some nice bits of screwball comedy in the first act as the escapee and Liu keep stealing the film canister from each other. But the film takes on a more poignant quality as it goes along. The centrepiece sequence finds them having to clean the reels of film when they get tangled up together after being dragged through the dirt, and the images of strips of celluloid being tenderly cleaned, and strung through projectors, are shot with nothing but love for the medium.

Yimou’s film was initially supposed to premiere at Berlinale in 2019, but, in a twist of fate, was pulled from the competition, with Chinese censors forcing the filmmaker to re-edit and reshoot parts of his work to appease their sensibilities. Knowing this, it’s easy to wonder how the subtle commentary on Mao’s Cultural Revolution might have played in an unedited version. The film also has a slightly awkward epilogue that feels somewhat tacked on and undercuts a bit of the story’s impact.

But these things aside, One Second still plays quite well in its current form, telling an entertaining, involving and even genuinely touching story about the literal power of film to connect people from different backgrounds. As such, it provided a very fitting closing night film for this year’s festival.

Public Screenings:

Saturday, September 18th – 4:30 PM at Roy Thomson Hall

Saturday, September 18th – 6:00 PM at VISA Screening Room at the Princess of Wales

Saturday, September 18th – 7:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

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