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The AFI Fest returned to Hollywood for live, in-person screenings and events, although there was also a virtual component for watching many of the feature, documentary, short, indie, studio, and foreign productions that Los Angeles’ largest annual film festival presented in 2021. Some of the screenings were accompanied by talent who introduced and/or spoke about their films when they were shown at the TCL Chinese Theatres in Hollywood. Here are reviews of some of the films I saw:

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ONE SECOND – Chairman Yimou Returns to the Scene of the “Crime”

Not all of the films screened at AFI Fest 2021 were gems. Zhang Yimou’s One Second is sort of Cinema Paradiso meets The Red Detachment of Women meets Sullivan’s Travels. In One Second, one of the great directors of the People’s Republic of China returns to the scene of the “crime” – the so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Zhang experienced firsthand the Cultural Revolution unleashed by Chairman Mao and the Red Guards against the “capitalist roaders” (judging by the PRC today, it looks like the latter and their assorted sordid running dogs have won) – he went from being a film school student to a farm laborer to a textile mill worker. Zhang has previously dramatized the traumatic effects of that upheaval in films such as 1994’s To Live.

Yimou’s 104-minute feature is a pretty brutal film that can be a tedious, tough slog to wade through – to coin a phrase, a “long march” indeed. In One Second, during the Cultural Revolution Zhang Jiusheng (Yi Zhang) escapes from a labor camp in order to see an agitprop newsreel that his daughter appears in performing manual work for the eponymous one second (or 24 frames of film). En route to a screening (films are transported from village to village to be projected) he clashes with the teenaged Sister Liu (Haocun Liu), who desires to possess the celluloid strips for her own bizarre reason. They encounter the projectionist who is nicknamed “Mr. Movie” (Wei Fan), who at one point constructs a jerry-rigged Rube Goldberg type of contraption in the projection booth so Zhang Jiusheng can look for his daughter’s cameo appearance over and over again.

Like those fabled films of the Czechoslovak New Wave such as Milos Forman’s 1967 The Firemen’s Ball, One Second is intended to use the movie theater and events leading up to the screening as a metaphorical microcosm of the bureaucratic, authoritarian Stalinist-style state, just as Forman satirized the annual ball of a Czech small town’s volunteer fire department to represent the corruption and ineptness of the pro-Soviet regime.

The newsreel Mr. Movie screens is accompanied by a stilted 1964 propaganda film Heroic Sons and Daughters, set during the Korean War. (The audience’s reaction to the double feature reminds of Preston Sturges’ aforementioned 1941 Sullivan’s Travels.) Scenes from this propagandistic picture reminded of something that may be apocryphal, but I believe that I read or heard once that the reason why Jean-Luc Godard stopped being a Maoist was because the Chinese film industry under Chairman Mao made such awful films.

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In any case, in his silver screen spoof and critique of the Cultural Revolution Zhang Yimou may be committing the very sin he himself is condemning. As with party line agitprop films, every frame in One Second is dripping with meaning intended to influence and convince viewers. In a similar way, Ayn Rand, the anti-Soviet émigré and zealot, was guilty of the same “crime” in her pro-laissez faire novels. While their conclusions may be different, ironically, their methods are the same as the communists they’re criticizing.

Having said that, although the heavy-handed One Second wasn’t my cup of tea, I oppose any censorship of Zhang Yimou and his films and support his right to speak his mind. It was brave of AFI to screen this movie – even if I didn’t particularly care for it.

For more info see: ONE SECOND | AFI FEST.

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TO WHAT REMAINS – War Wrecks at Palau

I went to see To What Remains with lots of anticipation because I used to live in Palau (where this documentary is set) and I have co-authored three books on South Seas Cinema. But boy, was I let down. This isn’t so much a film per se but some sort of audiovisual record intended to be used as a fundraising tool. To be fair, there are a few cinematic flourishes, but mostly this is a repetitive, contrived creaky chronicle of white Americans going to this Micronesian archipelago in search of some of the 200 airplane, and any possible human remains shot down there during fierce combat in these hotly contested Imperial Japanese-occupied islands in World War II. (Many boats were also sunken in Palauan waters.)

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I remember snorkeling in Palau’s exquisite waters and enjoying vistas of the fabled Rock Islands, but spectacular underwater and aerial shots are few and far between in To What Remains. The color, which I remember as being so vivid, often seemed washed out in this doc. Director Chris Woods is, alas, no Jacques Cousteau. As the Yankees promenade around from one dive site to another, there’s hardly a Palauan to be seen – it’s like the indigenous people are Ralph Ellison’s invisible men and women in their own ancestral homelands. As in many of Hollywood’s (Haole-wood’s) South Seas flicks, the Native are mere backdrops for the derring-do and action by the really important characters – the white bwanas and Lord Jims.

To be fair, Palau’s then President, Tommy Remengesau, is briefly seen making a speech to the Americans and giving survivors of WWII servicemen who lost their lives in Palau during WWII Palauan flags. President Remengesau tells the Yankee Doodle Dandies that the dead aviators, etc., are also Palauans. So, the only substantial scene with a Palauan depicted has him slapping the backs of the white Americans, telling them how great their lost loved ones were.

I personally respect those who fought against the Axis powers in WWII and agree that we owe the men and women in the armed forces who defeated fascism our lasting respect and gratitude. But at no time in To What Remains does one get the sense that during the island hopping campaign of WWII that the Americans could care less about the indigenous people when they invaded Peleliu, et al – rather, it was part of the geopolitical chess game of big power politics pitting Washington against Tokyo as to who will rule the Pacific, Natives be damned.

As part of that deadly realpolitik, To What Remains has footage of the most (in)famous U.S. flyer who fought in Palau: George H.W. Bush. (Although but of course, there is no mention of the alleged war crime Bush committed at Kayangal in 1944, strafing Japanese servicemen in the water.) This is really very intriguing because, as I’ve been maintaining for years, the strategic importance of Palau was imprinted on Bush at a very early age. And in the 1980s, when Palau was subjected to endless covert actions, including the shooting deaths of two Palauan presidents, as part of a conflict to end the world’s first nuclear free constitution, all roads led to the former CIA Director and then-Vice Pres. Bush – not to Pres. Reagan. But that is another story – although arguably the most important aspect of To What Remains is its unwitting documentation of Bush’s wartime exploits in the Pacific Theater at what later became, all too briefly, nuclear free Palau.

Ed Rampell

Chuck Todd of Meet the Press moderated a post-screening discussion in the Chinese 1 Theater, although I don’t believe To What Remains was part of the “Meet The Press Film Festival at AFI Fest. For more info see: TO WHAT REMAINS | AFI FEST.

All in-person screenings and events during the AFI Film Festival took place Nov. 10-14 at the TCL Chinese Theatres in Hollywood. For more information see: AFI FEST .

Ed Rampell