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One Second, set during the screening of a propaganda drama in rural China during the Cultural Revolution, was on the program of the Berlin International Film Festival back in February, 2019, but was pulled because of 'technical difficulties.'Courtesy of TIFF

The Toronto International Film Festival usually ends on a light note, closing with a minor Hollywood crowd-pleaser or a pretty European period piece. This year, programmers have stuck to that tone and picked One Second, Zhang Yimou’s sentimental tribute to cinema, as the closing night film with a North American premiere slated for Saturday. And yet, a dark question mark hovers over this endearing title: How much was Zhang forced to change the film to satisfy Chinese censors?

One Second, set during the screening of a propaganda drama in rural China during the Cultural Revolution, was on the program of the Berlin International Film Festival back in February, 2019, but was pulled because of “technical difficulties.” Festival-goers immediately concluded the film was being censored despite Zhang’s reputation as an artist who has successfully negotiated between Western tastes and Eastern politics – and his triumphant work on the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Whatever the difficulties were, they took months to resolve and included reshoots – as reported by Variety which cited social media posts from lead actor Zhang Yi in which he mentioned returning to the film’s location in the Gobi desert. One Second was belatedly released in China in late 2020, and is now dribbling out to the rest of the world. Its European premiere opens the San Sebastian Film Festival the night before TIFF closes. Meanwhile, the U.S. distributor Neon has picked up North American rights, so expect to see the film in local cinemas soon.

And what will audiences see after this delay? Set in a village surrounded by distinctive sand dunes, One Second follows a prisoner who escaped from a labour camp (Zhang Yi) as he chases a stack of film canisters, hoping to watch a newsreel that includes some footage of his estranged daughter. He has competition, however: The wild young Orphan Liu (Liu Haocun) needs a few metres of celluloid for her own particular reasons. As they pursue the film, a whole reel unspools off the back of a donkey cart and the villagers have to come together to clean it.

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Neither the director nor producers have offered any comment on what might have been cut – and the Canadian distributor told The Globe that no interviews would be available until the film’s commercial release – but TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey says the festival wouldn’t have shown the film if it did not reflect the director’s vision.

“Zhang Yimou is a veteran filmmaker who has worked through many different moments of leadership in China,” Bailey said in an interview. “He is a strong filmmaker. This is a version of the film that he’s approved. … If this was a version he didn’t want shown, he wouldn’t have allowed it to be shown. So, we’re glad to have it.”

Still, it’s hard not to watch this film and wonder what might have offended, what might have been cut and what might have been added. The inequities of the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, remain a sensitive topic in China but there is also now a certain nostalgia for simpler times before the economic expansion of the 1990s: This film is infused with it.

In particular, the way in which the village gathers excitedly for the film screening and rescues the dirtied print speaks to the power of the collective. The local projectionist, Mr. Movie (Fan Wei), is a revered figure and while he’s initially portrayed as self-important he eventually reveals a classic heart of gold. Meanwhile, the occasional beating – from the local bullies or the local cops – is played almost farcically as victims bounce back with minor consequences. The sentimental tone is central to Zhang’s film and can’t have been added at an outsider’s behest.

However, you’ll note there are no scenes in the labour camp. The film begins with the prisoner on the dunes and there is no initial explanation of why he might want the newsreel, a bit of exposition that would have occurred back at the camp.

What really stands out, however, is a post-script, set two years after the main events, in which prisoners are being released from the camp in fresh new clothes while the scruffy orphan is now brushed and washed. The message is clear: Any errors of the Cultural Revolution were rapidly rectified. These last scenes are unnecessary and mar an ironic ending. One can guess they were added after the Berlin fiasco because they are preceded by the camera stopping on a single image that just screams: roll credits.

Does this spoil the movie? No, it’s still a delightful film and Western art-house audiences can probably be trusted to know that life during the Cultural Revolution was not all joyful community gatherings. Bailey says One Second feels like a return to Zhang’s early films of the 1980s and nineties (Red Sorghum, Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern). “He was working under very strict content laws [about] what you might say, what could be shown on screen, what couldn’t. He found a way to tell really compelling stories within that atmosphere, as many great artists can do. And he’s done it again here.”

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