This is my only chance.
The assumption is that our unnamed protagonist (Yi Zhang) is about to steal the reels of film that have just been loaded onto a motorcycle headed for the next town’s screening. He hides in the shadows as the two men bringing them out decide to hit the bar next door for a drink before the driver takes off. Yi skulks closer to the satchels as they leave, moving towards the windows to see that they have sat down and occupied themselves with conversation. With that he turns, steals some drying food, and gazes back at the motorcycle to see a young woman (Haocun Liu‘s Orphan Liu) standing by its side. That’s when she reaches in, steals a canister, and runs. Rather than take his own, Yi gives chase.
Based on a novel by Geling Yan, director Yimou Zhang‘s Yi miao zhong [One Second] turns into a comedy of errors between these two as they attempt to procure the reel from the other by any means necessary. Co-adapted with Jingzhi Zou, Yimou is easing us in by ensuring we understand that the two being cutthroats doesn’t mean they’re violent enough to cause injury. He wants us to enjoy the banter and pickpocketing antics as they cross the desert for a simple reason: possessing this reel isn’t about money. They aren’t even thieves. Yi wants to ensure it gets returned because he’s traveled a long way to see it projected on-screen. Liu simply desires the film itself, regardless of its content, to fix a problem at home.
That right there shows the power of this strip of plastic. It bridges great distances by showing images you can’t physically see with your own eyes as well as serves as a multi-purpose object (decorative or otherwise) to be repurposed in myriad ways. What it is Yi wants to see and Liu wants to make is for the movie itself to reveal in due time, though, because the circumstances for both carry a lot of extra baggage this opening act of humor doesn’t need bringing it down. Only when they arrive at their destination and meet the town’s resident projectionist (Wei Fan‘s Mr. Movie) are they forced to divulge their truths. It’s also where we discover a couple more uses for film: government propaganda and community-wide excitement.
To do so, however, we also need some additional drama in the form of a different reel inexplicably being damaged after getting dragged in the dirt and sand from the back of a carriage. It’s Liu’s best opportunity yet to snip off about twelve and a half meters for her needs and run home, but it’s the worst possible development for Yi upon figuring out that what he’s come to see lays somewhere in that twisted pile of film. Luckily, Mr. Movie has his own selfish reasons for doing whatever is necessary to not cancel the screening. He believes his job is in jeopardy (despite the “World’s Best Projectionist” mug he carries around) and needs the audience to lift him upon their shoulders as a hero.
It’s as though Yimou is giving his love for cinema physical form by way of capturing the painstakingly delicate process of cleaning off that film with nothing more than pots, chopsticks, and wire. Mr. Movie gets the entire town involved as they distill water through condensation to wash the strips hanging like laundry behind the auditorium’s giant curtain. That’s how much these people crave the theater. They’ve seen the movie that’s going to be shown countless times (How many titles do you think communist China is allowing their people to view?) and yet they’ve been waiting months for the opportunity to do so again. All their troubles and differences are washed away in those few precious minutes when they revert to being kids quietly enthralled in the dark.
And as that exercise is under way, we’re allowed a first-hand look at the pain and struggle families endure during tense times of labor camps, political pariahdom, and poverty. The comedy begins to fade to the background as we learn about the lost love that drives both Yi and Liu to do things they don’t necessarily want to do. When you’re pushed into a corner, though, desperation kicks in. Maybe they can even help each other accomplish their respective goals if they allow themselves the room to find trust. That won’t be easy considering their tumultuous brief history together so far, but movie magic creates miracles on-screen. Why couldn’t it also do the same off? Yi and Liu just need some time to see things through.
That’s unfortunately the one thing they don’t really possess once their anxieties increase and force them into telling certain secrets that will surely get citizens worried enough to call the authorities. The hope is that everyone’s universal yearning to be loved (Yi misses his daughter, Liu misses her father, and Mr. Movie laments his role in creating immovable challenges for his son) might get them to put aside their fears and greed by embracing charity instead. Save an unnecessary epilogue that gives form to an implicit reality anyone paying attention already knew would happen from the original fade to black, Yimou achieves that sense of kinship with heartfelt drama and the unforgettable pairing of anguish with contrition. It’s a slight journey beautifully glued together with hope.
courtesy of TIFF