Zhang Yimou’s film that China prevented from opening in Berlin and Cannes hits theaters

The film is a love letter to the cinema, based on the experience of the veteran director. It tells the story of a fugitive from a reeducation camp of the Chinese revolution, obsessed with seeing his daughter in a picture in the cinema.

A love letter to the cinema of Zhang Yimou a filmmaker who has directed more than 25 films, in more than 35 years of career. But One second, which today hits theaters thanks to Vertigo, goes much further. And in fact it has much more portraiture and nostalgic memories of the director than it might seem. Which has unintentionally turned it into a film persecuted by the Chinese government that has not allowed it to be released in Berlin or Cannes.

The film tells the story of a prisoner from a labor camp who escapes and risks everything to be able to see his daughter in a film shown in a nearby cinema. But when he is about to get it, a petty thief crosses his path, steals the film and what seemed simple ends up being much more complex than anyone could expect.

One second is touching and nostalgic, starring two funny rogues without intending it, and it is actually a love letter to a cinema, a way of watching cinema and making cinema that is practically extinct, that pays tribute to cinema as an escape, to celluloid as almost a work of art to be treated with care.

A film that might remind us of Cinema Paradiso (1988), but in reality it gives us everything that Cinema Paradiso did not give us.

And even more exciting when it is discovered that the nostalgic portrait he makes of those labor camps in the 60s Zhang Yimou is based on his own experience, as he went through one of them in his youth during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, when he was sent to a political re-education camp. But also, Yimou shares with the protagonist that pain for not having seen his daughter grow up. He also suffered the painful separation from his daughter from his first marriage.

The Cultural Revolution, a period in the mid-1960s when the Maoist regime regained power in the country eliminating any dissidence considered ‘bourgeois’, the film is Yimou’s return to a more authorial cinema after years making blockbusters like The flowers of war, with Cristian Bale, or, The big Wall with Matt Damon.


Zhang Yi and Fan wei are the protagonists of this film, shot in the small Chinese city of Dunhuang, with an almost desert landscape surrounded by dunes that in the film also take on a relevant almost poetic role. LThe film was destined to be a new international success. Signed by a Zhang, who has been twice Oscar nominee, admired by Steven Spielberg, and who had achieved several milestones for Chinese cinema: he won the Berlin Golden Bear with Red Sorghum and the Golden Lion of Venice twice (The Story of Qiu Ju, Not One Less) and achieved the first two world blockbusters of Chinese cinema with Hero ($ 177 million in 2002) and The House of Flying Daggers (92 million, in 2004).

However, China has prevented its premiere at the Berlin and Cannes Film Festival, although it has been commissioned to inaugurate the San Sebastian Festival. But how did the director to whom the Chinese government entrusted the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games, and to whom it entrusted the acts of homage of the 70th anniversary of the cultural revolution, come to be censored?

‘One Second’, the new film by Zhang Yimou, withdrawn from the Berlinale

What happened with One second It has been an adventure, which does justice to what the protagonists of the story themselves live. The film was going to premiere at the Berlin Film Festival and was seen by many as a candidate for the Golden Bear, but a week before it withdrew from the competition. As published by Hollywood Reporter when One second arrived at the Berlin festival, it already had the so-called Dragon Seal.


When a Chinese film is going to be shown abroad, censorship controls everything from the script and pre-production to post-production, after which the Dragon Seal is obtained. It is an accreditation that certifies that its content has been approved by the National Film Administration of China, ensuring that the content of the film is politically acceptable..

However, Chinese films destined for international screening have always had to receive a lesser-known technical approval that guarantees that the image is technically competent, that is, that the image and sound have the appropriate formats and a minimum quality. A procedure that was imposed in the days when Chinese productions were products with less professional invoices.

And curiously, it was at this point that Zhang Yimou’s film stalled, according to the Hollywood Reporter. «Someone older» in the party’s Propaganda Department had seen the image of the film and found its «general theme inappropriate». There were no more details, so the director could not modify those contents to overcome the obstacles of the Chinese official so he could not compete in Berlin.

San Sebastián 2021 Day 1: Reunion with cinema and humor with ‘Official Competition’ and ‘One Second’, Zhang Yimou’s love letter to celluloid

So the director reissued the film for the third time in order to get around the problems with censorship and to be able to release the film at Cannes. However, it also did not get approval in time to premiere on the Croisette. Although it did manage to premiere in theaters in China.

As explained in the Hollywood Reporter, this obsession with silencing this film at international festivals has to do with that deep down, what it shows One second questions the methods of the cultural revolution in some way and if the director won with his film in an international festival the international media they would focus on the habitually censored history of China.

It was not the first time that the Chinese director faced censorship. In 1994 Zhang Yimou won the Cannes Jury Prize for Period Drama Live that did not get released in theaters in China because the Chinese government considered that there was criticism towards them.

The good news is that we will finally be able to see it in theaters in Spain, after its premiere in San Sebastián where the opening film was, and it finally got the space it deserved.

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