This article raises a point central to our upcoming study on Totalitarian Dictatorship: the primacy of Party-State ideology over the economy. The thoroughgoing distortion of state policies at every level that results from this inversion of the Weberian primacy of purposive rationality over value rationality is very intriguing from a sociological standpoint. This particular distinction will be the subject of our next part on "Totalitarian Economics".
There is nothing that explicitly tells the viewer that One Second, the latest movie from noted Chinese director Zhang Yimou, takes place during the cultural revolution. But then Chinese viewers don’t need to be told.
The opening scenes feature the central character, an ex-conman, trudging across the endless sands of the Gobi Desert as he makes his way from a labour camp to a local village. The audience gradually learns that he is desperate to arrive there to watch a newsreel, which will accompany a rare film screening meant to break up the monotony of rural life. The newsreel features a glimpse, just one second long, of his young daughter, a Communist party volunteer, cheerfully unloading 50kg bags of rice from a truck sent to an unidentified, hunger-stricken area. Viewers only learn later that the truck hits her inadvertently, and kills her.
Originally, One Second was meant to debut at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2019, where it was expected to receive the award for best foreign film. But just days before the planned screening, China’s film bureau — newly merged with the party’s propaganda arm — ruled that it did not pass muster, officially for “technical” reasons.
The decision, the film’s makers were told obliquely, came from above. A few years ago, One Second would have had no such problem, those involved with its production say. But, like so much else in China, movies have become increasingly subject to the ever tighter grip of the party under the leadership of President Xi Jinping.
One Second marks the return of China’s most famous film-maker to his roots. As in his earlier films Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju and Coming Home have done, it features ordinary citizens in remote areas caught up in the machinations of petty officials — in this case, the one in charge of showing the newsreel. Known as “Mr Movie”, he discovers that the central character has escaped from the labour camp, and reports him to the relevant authorities.
The film, which at its heart is a tribute to basic humanity because it depicts friendship growing between social outcasts, comes after a decade in which Mr Zhang seemingly tried to please the powers that be through various projects. These included orchestrating the opening spectacle of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and movies such as The Great Wall, an appeal to party-sanctioned patriotism.
Sadly, Mr Zhang himself exercised considerable self-censorship before One Second was submitted to the Beijing regulators. For example, virtually every villager in this remote area is depicted with a bicycle, and some even have motorcycles — all inconceivable luxuries in those days. Even the young orphan girl, who befriends the central character, has electricity in her hovel.
Since the film was pulled, those involved with it have been negotiating with the bureaucrats to make changes in order to secure the party’s blessing. (While a movie can still be shown abroad without censors’ approval, it can never be shown domestically — which is to say it won’t succeed commercially.)
These changes involve eliminating scenes in which the escapee is beaten up by security forces after they recapture him. In the closing scenes of the uncensored version, Mr Movie, remorseful for the beating that the escapee receives, extracts the strip of newsreel that contains the glimpse of his dead daughter, carefully wraps it in a piece of paper, and places it in the recaptured man’s pocket. But the police escort finds the small packet and throws it into the sand. The orphan girl who has been following behind hears his howls of anger, picks up the packet and waves at his retreating back. But the clip is blown away by the wind.
The censored version, by contrast — one minute shorter than the original — ends with a joyful reunion of the ex-conman and his new friend the orphan girl at the labour camp. This is the version that will finally air in late November.
Had the uncensored version of One Second been approved, the good will China would have earned as a result of artistic merit would have been greater than will now be the case. In today’s China, though, the party has the last word in both the real world and the celluloid one.