The Chinese poster for a November 2020 release

I remember quite distinctly watching Yellow Earth in 1986 as the first Fifth Generation film to reach the UK from China. I was entranced as much by the visual splendour of the film as its narrative content. That film was directed by Chen Kaige but photographed by Zhang Yimou. It was followed by a similar combination responsible for The Big Parade in 1986 (screened on Channel 4 in the UK?) and then Zhang’s directorial début with Red Sorghum in 1988 which had a cinema release in the UK. I remember being assaulted with the brilliance of Zhang’s presentation at the Screen on the Hill, Belsize Park. From then on I tried to see every UK release for Zhang’s films in the UK. But after directing the presentations at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Zhang’s films started to become more difficult to see. I’ve only watched one since then, Zhang’s entertaining re-make of Blood SimpleA Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (2009). I’ve actually got a Blu-ray of Flowers of War (China 2011) about the Nanking massacre, but so far I haven’t had the guts to watch it all the way through.

Zhang and Liu in the desert with the reel of film

Since the emergence of the Sixth Generation and the rise of a ‘New Chinese Cinema’, perhaps best understood in the West through the films of Jia Zhangke, Fifth Generation directors like Zhang Yimou have been less likely to be seen in the West. Zhang has always courted danger with the Chinese censorship authorities and his 2020 film One Second seems to be another cause célèbre, failing to appear at the Berlin Film Festival because of censorship, which subsequently required Zhang to re-edit. Fortunately it now appears on MUBI and the reason for its difficulties is seemingly because it features Chinese cinema exhibition during the Cultural Revolution (roughly 1966-76). Zhang himself, as the son of a Nationalist officer in the Civil War, suffered during the Cultural Revolution. working on the land and then in a textile factory and he sees his experiences as the basis for his ‘personal films’. He was a teenager in 1966 and would eventually get into the Beijing Film School in 1978 when he required special clearance as an over-age entrant. I don’t necessarily agree with Zhang’s politics, but for me he has been the great visual storyteller of world cinema since 1985.

Liu gets involved in the cleaning
Zhang behind the cloth screen in the hall

One Second doesn’t disappoint. It presents us with two central characters. Zhang Jiusheng (Zhang Yi) has escaped from a labour camp in a desert region of China (the Gobi Desert, I think) and he is intent on finding a newsreel film in which his young daughter appears briefly. He has been in prison for most of his daughter’s childhood and this is his chance to at least see his daughter. (The title refers to the brief moments when the daughter appears during a newsreel story about workers in a grain store.) But Zhang has a competitor. ‘Orphan Liu’, a young woman, is equally intent on stealing a can of film which could allow her small brother to create a lampshade to help him study. Zhang and Liu chase each other across the dunes of the desert at the start of the narrative. At this point in the young history of the ‘People’s Republic of China’, the travelling film show was a huge event in rural China. Few films were produced during the Cultural Revolution and many of the earlier films were subject to censorship in the period. In the remote towns and villages, reels of film were transported by motorcycle carriers between centres of population with a public hall big enough to accommodate the whole community. The films were mainly patriotic and propagandist and they were accompanied by a single reel newsreel. It is this reel that Zhang Jiusheng and the girl are both trying to steal. The scale of these community screenings is difficult to visualise because records were not kept during the Cultural Revolution. In 1959 the Chinese audience was officially 4.17 billion and in 1978 it reached a peak of 27.9 billion (see Chinese National Cinema, Zhang Yingjin, Routledge 2004). Many of these audiences were in community cinemas like those depicted here.

Caught by the community security team

It’s impossible to evaluate this film without knowledge of how it presented its narrative before the intervention of the censors. As it is, it ends with a brief coda which might be seen as a ‘happy ending’. I have seen suggestions that the original was a harsher story and therefore the censors blocked the full condemnation of the difficulties for individuals and communities during the Cultural Revolution. The film is actually an adaptation of a novel by Yan Geling. She was the writer of two earlier novels adapted for films by Zhang, Flowers of War (2011) and Coming Home (2014), the latter referring to a family torn apart during the Cultural Revolution. Other earlier Zhang films have focused on the stories of young women falling foul of the state and/or losing parents. What remains in One Second is a humanist story about a man and a girl who form a difficult surrogate father-daughter relationship. In truth the central narrative is quite repetitive as the newsreel film passes from one character to another. The centrepiece of the film is the almost documentary/procedural section in which a film damaged in transit is cleaned using ingenious methods and the help of the audience led by Mr. Movie (Fan Wei), the cinema projectionist. He is a nuanced character with his own family story and in a sense he represents many workers in responsible positions during the Cultural Revolution. The film screening is important to the community. This whole section has led some critics to bracket the film with Cinema Paradiso (Italy-France 1988). There are certainly similar elements in the two films but also many differences. What can’t be denied is that One Second looks terrific in its ‘Scope ratio thanks to Zhang Yimou’s regular cinematography collaborator Zhao Xiaoding, who has shot Zhang’s films since House of Flying Daggers in 2004. The shots of a single figure crossing the desert take me back to those first screenings of Fifth Generation films. Can we get access now to Zhang’s other films from the last decade please?