Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Zhang Yi, Liu Haocun, Fan Wei
Runtime: 1 hr 44 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Coarse Language)
Released By: Clover Films
Opening Day: 23 September 2021
Synopsis: China during the Cultural Revolution. A prisoner escapes from a labour camp. He risks everything in his search for a stolen film reel in which his long-lost daughter appears for one second. Soon he encounters the thief, an orphaned girl haunted by her own terrible loss. A beautiful, moving and deeply personal homage to the redemptive power of cinema in the vein of Cinema Paradiso from Zhang Yimou, three-time Academy Award(r) nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.
Zhang Yimou’s latest work about the power of cinema made news more than two years ago when it was abruptly pulled from its competition slot at the distinguished Berlin Film Festival. Citing “technical reasons”, the news sparked discussions that the film ran into censorship issues in China. It is, after all, a movie set during the Cultural Revolution, a period that may be touchy to the authorities (side note: have you seen how Chinese celebrities are being cancelled at an alarming rate recently?).
While we may never know the real reason for the film’s sudden withdrawal, it is heartening to know that Zhang’s film is still a piece of work that is evidently made with passion. Described as his “love letter to cinema”, one can see this as China’s version of Cinema Paradiso (1988), Giuseppe Tornatore’s masterpiece about the magic of cinema.
At the beginning of the film, we see a man (the ever reliable Zhang Yi) sneaking around a town to hunt down a newsreel that supposedly contains footage of his estranged daughter. It turns out that he is an escaped convict. Appearing next is an orphan (Liu Haocun) who steals a film canister, prompting the man to set chase. The duo end up in another town’s movie house and a respected projectionist (Fan Wei in a role that exudes reputable charm) comes in to the picture. The film reel has been unspooled and he gathers the townsfolk to untangle and clean the film. He is a master of his art, and refuses to show the film until the film strips is completely repaired.
What happens next is a revelation of why the three characters take this film reel so seriously. While the film seems like a heartfelt human drama, look deeper and you’ll realise that each protagonist’s motivation is a symbol of what different people were going through during the Cultural Revolution.
Zhang’s films are known for their lush visuals (from the early days of Red Sorghum Raise the Red Lantern to the recent House of Flying Daggers and Shadow), and while the settings for his latest movie are on a smaller scale, there are sequences that will make you stare in awe. Scenes of townspeople coming together to mend the tangled film reel, as well as an ingenious sequence where Fan sets up a loop reel, are enough to make you kowtow to the award winning filmmaker. And we haven’t even gushed about the scenes taking place in the vast dunes where characters wade through fine, golden sand to get from one point to another.
Above all, Zhang’s films speak to the human soul (forget about 2016’s The Great Wall, look instead at 1994’s To Live and 2014’s Coming Home). This film does just that, and throughout the 104 minute runtime, you’ll empathise with each of the three characters. There’s the man who wants nothing more than to connect with his daughter on screen, although it is only for the titular one second. There’s the streetwise young girl whose sole purpose is to make sure that her younger brother gets the best environment to study. And there’s the artist who may or may not have an ulterior motive in ferociously guarding his specialised skill of projecting films in a sensitive era.
(Zhang Yimou triumphs again in telling a beautiful human drama that centres on the delightful medium that is cinema)
Review by John Li