Somewhere in the land of worn-out metaphors, there’s a drawer overflowing with love letters from all the filmmakers who ever thought to make cinema of the making of cinema. But it feels inadequate to file Zhang Yimou’s “One Second” alongside those when it is the most direct and heartfelt valentine to the medium the revered Fifth Generation filmmaker has ever composed — even though, in the four decades between his 1981 debut “Red Sorghum” and this year’s “Cliff Walkers,” he has rarely made a film that could be considered anything but.
This time, in language as simple and lovely as a close-up on Liu Haocun’s grimy, radiant face and in sentences made from strips of sticky celluloid glinting in a projector’s glare as they dry, cinema has written back. “One Second” is not just about the magic of the movies, it’s about their resilience, and so it’s fitting — even moving — that despite the omissions and additions that have been mandated by the Chinese censors since it was yanked from the 2019 Berlinale competition, the film survives so soulfully. It’s been reedited and partially reshot, but its essence is intact, and anyway, despite the heavy hand of censorship inking out some of the more ardent passages, and a two-and-a-half-year delay in the love-letter’s delivery, if you hold it up to the light, you can still read what was originally written there.
In marked contrast to the convolutions and intricacies that have so constricted Zhang’s last few visually spectacular but emotionally remote genre entries, there’s an almost silent-movie simplicity to the plotting here. It is 1975 and an unnamed fugitive from a prison camp (Zhang Yi, also in “Cliff Walkers”) is staggering through the desert. In a nothing-town nearby, a traveling movie show run by “Mr. Movie” (Fan Wei), the “World’s Greatest Projectionist,” according to the slogan on his tea mug, has just wrapped up for the night. And in the alley behind the small temporary cinema, lurks Liu (Liu Haocun, confirming her “Cliff Walkers” promise), an orphan girl with scarecrow hair, ready to pounce on the reels of film that Mr. Movie’s slow-witted son has left unguarded.
Liu pounces. The fugitive catches her in the act of snaffling reel six of the 1964 propaganda film “Heroic Sons and Daughters” which Mr. Movie, at least a lip-serving Party man, has been touring for years now. In the unforgiving terrain which Zhao Xiaoding’s superb camerawork captures in enormous wides that are not just attuned to its dusty, shifting-sand magnificence but also to its potential for absurdist comedy, the orphan and the fugitive act out their Buster Keaton-style chase antics. And in the process of getting the reel back to a grateful but wary Mr. Movie, a grudging “Paper Moon” bond is formed, that is expressively but not over-sentimentally played by the two actors.
Each of the three principals has a different reason for coveting the film reel, and you can read each of them as symbolic of a different aspect of what film meant to Chinese society at the time. Pragmatic, poverty-stricken Liu wants the actual, practical stuff of it — the celluloid — as material to recycle into something else. Mr. Movie is a showman who prides himself on his professionalism both in his commitment to the art form and its co-opting for political ends — naturally he wants to project the completed film in all its prideful, propagandist glory. Of all three, the fugitive is the one with the most romantic, and also most delusional reason for going after the reel: he believes it might contain footage of his long-estranged teenaged daughter.
As it happens, the section Liu steals is not the one the fugitive is looking for. That newsreel, as dumb luck would have it, has been accidentally unravelled and dragged through the dust and mud. It will take the concerted efforts of a whole village to clean and reassemble it — sequences Zhang shoots with a trademark mix of tactile tenderness and epic visual flair. In his hands, the procession of the townspeople into the hall, the hoisting of the sheet for use as a screen, and the painstaking restoration of the embattled footage all become stanzas in a touchingly bittersweet poem about cinema as an illusion fabricated from real, tangible elements — plastics and sprockets and toxic chemicals — that still needs an act of willful collective faith to function.
“Two Years Later” reads the title that introduces a coda which, were you the gambling type, you would bet the farm on not having been part of the original film. You could almost suspect Zhang of meta-commentary given that it’s more than two years since “One Second,” as it was first conceived, was due to premiere. But though there are obvious compromises made in regard to its commentary on the waning Cultural Revolution era in which it takes place (“Things are really changing now!” says a chirpy official in the postscript) look closely enough and the movie, by its shape and especially the rhythm of Du Yuan’s droll, pacy editing, still tells the story it wants to tell. And the surprise, perhaps, is that it is an ambivalent one: Zhang has been a cinematic master for decades but “One Second” shows he knows the movies are also his mistress, and a harsh and sometimes unworthy mistress at that. It’s hard not to read some element of rueful self-critique into a film that is not only a loving celebration of cinema but also a warning about the potential for the misuse of its intoxications, as well as a distinctly pointed jab at every foolish dreamer who has ever turned away from a real, live thing to instead go chasing a trick of the light.