Director: Yimou Zhang (China, Hong Kong). Year of Release: 2020
A man is walking through a vast desert. The wind is whipping up the sand dunes. As sand swirls around him, he strides forward purposefully. He is quite alone.
Cut to: a cinema in a remote Chinese village. The film is over, and the cinema owners are packing up. They leave the canisters of film on a bicycle and go for a drink. A street urchin with birds nest hair grabs one of the canisters and rushes off. The man from the opening scene sees this and takes chase. He soon overcomes the urchin and retrieves the film. He returns to the cinema to give it back, but both the cinema and nearby bar are closed. The owners are nowhere to be seen.
The man returns on his way, carrying the film in his back. The urchin stands in his path, now armed with a flick knife. Behind him, a young man emerges carrying a baseball bat. Once more, he overpowers the urchin and the lad with the baseball bat rushes off. It is only now that he realises that the urchin is a girl. He apologises for being too rough.
Zhang Jiusheng has just escaped from a rehabilitation camp where he had been sent for being a “bad element”. He is desperate to watch the film “Heroic Sons and Daughters”, a government propaganda film in which his estranged daughter apparently has a brief part. Orphan Liu, the urchin girl, though, has other plans. She is collecting strings of celluloid to construct a lamp for her bed ridden brother.
Zhang and Liu seem condemned to a mutual. Zhang sets off into the desert. As the heat overcomes him, he is picked up by a car driver. Soon they see Liu, reel in hand. Zhang convinces the car driver to pick her up, saying that she is his daughter. In the car, Zhang and Liu bicker until she plays her trump card. Having initially claimed that he is not her father, she changes her mind and tells a long and painful story about how he neglected and abused her and her mother.
Zhang and Liu are chasing a genial man with a flat cap who is called Mr Movie in the English cast list, although the German subtitles call him Onkel Kino, Uncle Cinema, which feels much better. Mr Movie is a local entrepreneur, as far as entrepreneurs were allowed in Cultural Revolution China. Every 2 months, he takes the latest film through the local villages to the only cinema in each town. Zhang, desperate to see his daughter’s celluloid appearance, is in search of the next village.
Zhang finally finds Mr. Movie and returns the film. There is one problem, though. This was one reel of many, and the others have been half destroyed by Mr. Movie’s idiot son, who was in charge of transporting them to the next venue. Mr. Movie then engages the villagers in an attempt to clean and restore the damaged film. Zhang, saying that he has experience restoring film, is allowed to help, and gets to watch the restored film from Mr. Movie’s projection room.
But one run through of the film isn’t enough for him – especially as his daughter’s appearance only lasts for one second (you see, there was some point in that title). So Mr. Movie puts the part in which she “stars” on a loop, and leaves Zhang in the cinema, watching it until the power runs out. This is when the security forces arrive to take Zhang back to the camp. At first he runs off, leaving them to assault Liu, but then returns to save her.
There are obvious comparisons here with Cinema Paradiso, or at the very least with my vague memories of a film I saw only once over 20 years ago. I didn’t get on with Cinema Paradiso, finding it to be sentimentally nostalgic, overly obsessed with the technology of film, and containing way too many cute kids. Eine Sekunde contains pretty much all these features.
I left Cinema Paradiso understanding why so many people loved it while feeling it was not for me. I have a similar reaction to Eine Sekunde. It is not a bad film – far from it – but its interests and the form which it uses to express these interests are not ones which particularly interest me. Let’s just say that where some people delight in viewing elaborate Heath Robinson type contraptions set up to display an old-type projected film, I am just not “some people”.
One review called Eine Sekunde “a story from a true film lover to true moviegoers.” I find this sort of review ever so slightly smug and condescending. I agree that many recent developments in film have not been for the benefit of audience enjoyment, but to assume that enjoying film necessitates an interest in the mechanics of film – something which is better seen in a museum than in a cinema – is, to me, élitist nonsense.
But I digress. There is a neat little coda when Zhang returns once more from rehabilitation to first believe that Liu has preserved his daughter’s celluloid memory, then realise that his precious memento has been lost somewhere in the vast desert. It is a moment of pathos, of which I think the film deserves more. But this is a film which knows what it is doing and for whom. If it’s not for me, then that’s ultimately my problem. I wish it well, but found it hard to take it to my heart.