Zhang Yimou’s “One Second” has been pulled from China’s Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers Film Festival, where it had been given pride of place as the opening film. Political sensitivity over historical events, once again, appears to have led to the decision.
This is the second time that “One Second” has been yanked by Chinese authorities from a prominent slot at a major festival. In February 2019, it was removed at short notice from the Berlin Film Festival, where it had been scheduled to play in competition.
It is also the second year in succession that the Golden Rooster Festival has lost its opening film at short notice. Last year, Lou Ye’s “Saturday Fiction” was pulled from the lineup the day before opening. The Gong Li-starrer still hasn’t received a theatrical release in China, though last year it premiered in Venice and played several other autumn festivals in Europe.
Zhang’s 1960s-set movie depicts an escaped prisoner and an orphan girl who steals a newsreel containing the one second of footage that the man desperately wants to see. Zhang had framed the story as his tribute to cinema. The film is set during Mao Zedong’s 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when intellectuals and middle classes were sent to the countryside for forced reeducation. The ruling Communist Party has acknowledged that the period was an economic and social disaster, but it remains a highly sensitive subject.
Information about “One Second” and its Golden Rooster fall-out first appeared in a Weibo posting by Zhang’s wife. Festival sources subsequently confirmed the news in a short post that said the film was to be replaced with a screening of a new edition of 2019 sci-fi hit “The Wandering Earth.”
“According to official notice, the opening film for the showcase of national productions at China Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers Film Festival has been changed from Zhang Yimou’s ‘One Second’ to ‘The Wandering Earth: Beyond 2020 Special Edition.’ The originally scheduled 1:30pm screening on Nov. 25 has also been canceled,” the notification said.
The special edition of “The Wandering Earth” announced last week that it would hit Chinese theaters in wide release on Nov. 26, a day after it kicks off the Roosters. This version is presented only in 3D and runs 12 minutes longer than the 2019 original at 137 minutes.
Sources close to “One Second” told Variety that the only explanation they received for the film’s withdrawal was “technical reasons,” which can be interpreted as a euphemism for censorship. It is also the same reason provided in Berlin, more than 18 months earlier.
Zhang’s wife Chen Ting also said as much on her official Weibo Tuesday morning local time, but provided no further details about the film’s future theatrical prospects. She wrote: “Due to ‘technical reasons,’ ‘One Second’ can’t go to its Xiamen Golden Rooster premiere. Everyone just watch and cherish it after it hits cinemas…”
Understanding the specifics of the problem is murky. Before he began shooting, Zhang had to obtain approval from the China Film Bureau for the screenplay. The film would have also needed the so-called Dragon Seal, indicating that it had cleared censorship, before screening at Berlin. (In the past two years, a very small number of Chinese titles scheduled for major festivals abroad have been included in line-ups or even gone ahead with screenings despite not having yet locked down their Dragon Seal.)
There was also talk at the time that “One Second” had failed to secure the necessary permission to travel to an overseas festival, though this may be a distraction from the larger issue. While Zhang was making the movie, responsibility for the film industry shifted to a new regulator that reported directly to the ministry of propaganda. The National Film Administration has been more interventionist than its predecessor, the State Administration of Radio Film & Television, and has pushed state and privately-owned parts of the industry to produce a surge of patriotic and nationalist fare.
In the intervening period since Berlin 2019, Zhang and his film crew returned to the mountains of Gansu Province for reshoots. It’s unclear how much footage was replaced. When “One Second” finally passed censorship in September 2020 the new edit weighed in with a run-time that was one minute shorter than before. One viewer who’d seen both the new version and the older Berlin version told Variety that “after revisions and reshoots, the Cultural Revolution aspects were greatly diminished.”
For “One Second” to then be selected for a government-owned festival and awards show, and for it to be given the prestigious opening slot, would suggest that Zhang’s reshoots and re-edits had addressed all concerns about the sensitivities of this period of history. But the last two years also demonstrate that passing censorship and obtaining a Dragon Seal are no longer tantamount to receiving political blessing.
In June 2019, the 1938-set war film “The Eight Hundred” had been announced as the opening title at the Shanghai International Film Festival, another government-backed event. One day before the film’s world premiere, “technical reasons” were again cited to explain a disruption to the schedule. It quickly emerged that representatives of a Communist Party military veterans group objected to the film’s depiction of nationalist flags in the pre-Communist era. The flag has since been adopted by democratically-run Taiwan, which Communist China still considers a rebel province.
The Golden Rooster Festival has been running for more than 30 years but last year was given an upgrade and a permanent home in Xiamen. That was part of mainland authorities’ attempts to set it up as “China’s Oscars” and grab that unofficial accolade from the Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan. Mainland authorities also organized a boycott of Golden Horse and its awards after one of the 2018 prizewinners used the awards stage to make a speech advocating Taiwan’s independence.
Despite the messy protocol problems, “One Second” may still land in Chinese cinemas soon. “We hope that the release on Friday will not be affected,” the production source said. As of Tuesday evening, online ticketing sites including Maoyan, which is also an investor in the movie, were still pre-selling tickets.
Similarly, despite its festival woes, “The Eight Hundred” was heavily re-edited and given a release in July this year, when it served as a locomotive dragging spectators back into mainland cinemas. It has subsequently earned $441 million, making it one of the highest-grossing films in the world this year.
In the past, both Zhang and Lou have been considered by authorities as troublemakers. Zhang, who was sent for re-education during the Cultural Revolution, saw his 1994 epic “To Live” banned in China, despite winning awards in Cannes that year. He was only fully rehabilitated in 2008 when he choreographed the opulent opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Beijing that year.
Lou was able to show his previous film “Shadow Play” in Berlin in 2019 but said at the time that obtaining approval had taken two years of negotiations with censors. It did ultimately screen in Chinese theaters, where it made $9.63 million. Yet he told a Berlin press conference: “It was the most difficult censorship process I’ve ever lived through.”