Is it possible to talk about the good old days of cinema and the Chinese Cultural Revolution and it doesn’t turn out to be a sentimental or mendacious film?

A re-education camp escaped convict (Yi Zhang) walks all the way across the Gobi Desert – which makes for fantastic sand dune imagery – to a backwater town to see a screening of the propaganda film Heroic Sons and Daughters. Not because of the main film, but because of the newsreel in which his daughter appears hauling a sack of flour for a second. Zhang has not seen the daughter for six years; when he came to the camp she was eight. So much for the tragic part of Zhang Yimou’s tragic comedy.

But the screening is already over, the rolls of film are in the saddlebags of a motorcycle to be taken to the next desert town. Zhang’s plan turns into an odyssey – that’s the funny part of the film. First, the orphan girl Liu (Liu Haocun) steals the newsreel reel of all things, because she needs material for a lampshade for her little brother, who is addicted to reading. Then the hunt for Liu gets entangled and delayed on dusty roads, with bumpy trucks, junk bikes and horse-drawn carriages. Eventually, the celluloid ends up on target, but in tangled and dirty loose strips. The driver had used the tape securing the film canister to repair his whip…

Soon, the entire town is helping to save the reel, guided by Movie Fan (!), the projectionist of the Second Revolutionary Unit (Fan Wei). Like an ailing patient, the ball of film is carried into the room on a stretcher. Fireplaces for boiling water are lined up in front of the cinema, the strips are hung on clotheslines, carefully cleaned and fanned dry. Just a breeze please!

And everyone joins in. Because everyone longs for a distraction from the hard everyday life, for the flickering images on the bed sheet canvas, on which the most beautiful silhouettes of the collective rescue operation first appear. The tension mounts: will Zhang see his daughter at the end?

A homage to the miracle of cinema in times of repression, violence and hardship: Zhang Yimou, whose family was itself persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and who was initially one of China’s internationally celebrated critical auteur filmmakers, returns with this film to his beginnings, after staging the celebrations for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and for a long time mainly producing patriotic works and martial arts films. “One Second” is characterized by a demure, touchingly poetic social realism interspersed with fine humor, with a view to those “simple” people who try to remain reasonably decent despite poverty and despite Mao.

Which is why this film also fell victim to Chinese censorship. In 2019 it was due to be screened in competition at the Berlinale and did not receive final approval from the authorities at the last minute when the festival was already underway. Zhang Yimou had to cut and reshoot. But even the current version does not play down the Cultural Revolution. She contrasts the glorifying father-daughter happy ending of “Heroic Sons and Daughters” with a subtle, authority-defying adoptive father-daughter story in the person of Zhang and the stray Liu.

Here the dream of film projection, of family life denied by the Cultural Revolution, there the salvation of humanity: still the projectionist loyal to the regime, forced to betray him, consoles Zhang with a secret gesture of solidarity that again damages the saved celluloid when the secret police catches the fugitive again.

Zhang Yimou made the film based on a narrative strand of the novel “The Criminal Lu Yanshi” by the Berlin-based writer Yan Geling, on the basis of which the screenplay for his “Coming Home” (2014) was created. After Yan Geling had criticized the Chinese Communist Party’s corona policy, among other things, her name was apparently removed from the credits of “One Second” under pressure from the censors. The author has now written to the film distributor DCM and the Berlin Yorck cinema group, asking them to correct the violation of copyright and reinsert their name.

At a preview in the Neuer Off on Sunday, Yan Geling protested with others in front of the Neukölln cinema: “Stop the Chinese censorship in Germany”. When asked, a Yorck spokeswoman said: “It is very important to us that the author gets her rights”. Geling’s name has now been added to the Yorck website, and there will be a notice board in the opening credits in the cinema. Her name can also be found under the credits on the film portal Mubi, where “One Second” will be shown from September 16th.