Most of the critics went home days ago. Save for a few encore screenings, the in-person element of TIFF 2021 is over, and on the digital platform a black box hovers over the thumbnails of festival selections. “EXPIRED,” it reads. Best-of lists have been written—even here on The A.V. Club—and a final around of awards will be distributed by the end of the evening. For all intents and purposes, TIFF is over, which makes this an odd time to premiere a new work by a major international filmmaker like Zhang Yimou. But there’s been a lot of oddness surrounding One Second.
Zhang’s latest is in that increasingly rarified group of films that were shot before the COVID-19 pandemic and have been held since then, although the holdup here had little to do with the director’s desire to have his work seen on the biggest screen possible. One Second was originally slated to premiere at the Berlin Film Festival back in February of 2019, but was pulled just a few days before its scheduled premiere. The reason? “Technical problems,” a common euphemism for films that have caught the attention of the Chinese state censorship board. Now, two years later and one minute lighter, it’s been acquired by Neon for an American release.
From its official description on the TIFF website—“a love letter to cinema in which a man escapes a labour camp for a glimpse of his beloved daughter”—you might assume that this is a Cinema Paradiso type of project, and it does have shots of enraptured faces watching images unfold on a makeshift screen and skilled hands weaving celluloid through a rickety projector. But more than that, it’s a film about the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 and the poverty, both economic and intellectual, that accompanied it. This explains why it made censors nervous enough to withdraw it on the eve of its international debut; according to rumor, officials were worried it might win a major award in Berlin, and given the film’s subject matter Chinese officials decided not to risk the increased exposure.
That’s less of an issue now, given the film’s quiet closing-night bow at TIFF. Watching the film, it’s difficult to say where the cuts might have occurred. But there are a few areas where dialogue is cut short, or transitions between scenes don’t quite work. One is a conversation about why the film’s unnamed protagonist (Zhang Yi), who escapes from a government labor camp at the beginning of the film, was imprisoned there to begin with. That’s just conjecture, though, as that detail is less important than his motivation to break free: He’s received a letter from an old acquaintance telling him that they saw his daughter in a newsreel. It’s been six years since the man has seen his daughter’s face, and so he crosses a sea of dramatically lensed sand dunes to the small town of Dunhuang, where that very newsreel is scheduled to play that night.
Zhang was sent away for political re-education during the Cultural Revolution, and reportedly wanted to make this film for a decade or more before it was actually shot. And it does consider film’s power as a tool of propaganda as well as a deeply individual experience for each person who watches it. On the whole, however, this is a modest, often quite sentimental story, full of tragic orphans and heartwarming scenes of a community coming together to worship at the altar of moviegoing. Aside from those cinematic sand dunes, those looking for the epic sweep of a Shadow or House Of Flying Daggers won’t find it here, and the drab Maoist setting and dusty environment combine to make this one of Zhang’s less visually interesting works. It’s more reminiscent of his early work, and clearly coming from a very personal place.
An extended coda for this year’s TIFF also gave me the chance to catch up with the rest of this year’s Midnight Madness slate, which was dominated by genre hybrids. First, I saw After Blue (Dirty Paradise), a French sci-fi mashup that’s one part spaghetti western, one part Fantastic Planet, and one part arty softcore. (I could have done with a little more erotica, actually. It would have made the movie more memorable.) Titane reportedly takes some wild swings as well, but alas, I’m still waiting to see that one. That leaves us with Saloum—which is fine by me, because I had a blast watching this action/thriller/horror/Western out of Senegal. As I wrote when I put it on my top 5 list for TIFF 2021, Saloum is lean, twisty, and thrilling, so much so that I could see it succeeding abroad given the proper distributor and marketing push. They’ll probably just remake it instead. Ah, well.
If Hollywood does decide to translate Saloum into English, it’d be smart to bring its charismatic leads along for the ride. The film is led by a trio of well-dressed mercenaries: Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah), and Minuit (Mentor Ba), who together go by the name Bangui’s Hyenas. The Hyenas are legendary in this part of the world, known for their fighting prowess and the magical tactics provided by Minuit, who’s a sorcerer as well as a warrior. All three have swagger to spare, but Gael exudes movie-star quality as Chaka, the unofficial leader of the group, whose motivations go deeper than his friends realize. (He also looks really cool in Ray-Bans. Just saying.)
Saloum starts as an action movie before transitioning to a tightly wound thriller, as Chaka, Rafa, and Minuit lay low at a Senegalese beachside resort after completing a mission to extract a Mexican drug dealer from Guinea-Bissau. Once they arrive, the trio is confronted by Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), a young Deaf woman who knows exactly who they are and where they’ve come from, as well as a detective who’s keeping what he knows and doesn’t know to himself. All the while, a suitcase full of stolen gold sits under the resort’s communal dinner table like a ticking time bomb. But just when you think you know what type of movie you’re watching, it becomes something completely different. That’s all I can tell you for now, except that today I learned that the film’s director, Jean Luc Herbulot, has a series called Sakho & Mangane on Netflix that similarly blends cop action and African folk magic. I’ll be checking that out ASAP.
Folklore also plays a significant role in another breakout Midnight Madness title, You Are Not My Mother. Writer-director Kate Dolan makes her feature debut with this modern retelling of an Irish folktale, about a teenage girl named Char (Hazel Doupe) who’s convinced that what’s been happening to her mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken) is not your everyday nervous breakdown. Telling you which myth is being updated could potentially spoil the film, but I will give you a hint: It involves the sinister type of faeries, not the benevolent New Age kind.
Folk horror is having a moment right now, as are horror films that explore mental illness through the lens of the supernatural. You Are Not My Mother ticks both of these boxes. But Dolan’s thoughtful direction and the film’s nerve-rattling sound design are both well-done enough to make the film feel, if not completely fresh, engrossing enough to make it a worthy addition to those particular horror canons. Bracken’s performance as Angela is similarly compelling; she really commits to the principle that contorting one’s limbs and making gurgling, animalistic noises is creepy as hell. Dolan also infuses the film with lots of eerie Samhain atmosphere, saying in her video introduction that she made the movie specifically to be watched on Halloween. That’s important, because now that TIFF is wrapping up it’s time to jump into what’s come to be known as “spooky season,” another busy part of the film critic’s year. (Someone’s got to recommend all those horror movies!) First, though, I’m going to take a nap.