Not One Less
review by Gregory Avery, 30 June 2000

While Chen Kaige was spending years laboring on The Emperor and the Assassin, fellow director Zhang Yimou turned out two modest films, The Road Home and this picture, which is starts out in one of the many modern-day, dusty, rural villages scattered around mainland China.

Wei (Wei Minzhi), a thirteen-year-old girl, is sent to take charge of a class of grade school-aged children while their instructor, Teacher Gao (Gao Enman), attends to a family matter. In exchange, Wei is to get about forty yuan (which currently is the equivalent of $4.83 in U.S. currency). Wei hasn't even finished her own schooling, and is scarcely older than some of kids whom she's to teach, and with little idea of how to go about doing it, let alone what their present curriculum is (Teacher Gao tells her, for instance, that she should just write a lesson on the blackboard and tell the students to copy it in their notebooks. When the sun, during days when it's sunny, reaches a particular spot on a schoolroom post, that's the time when she's to let them out of class for the day).

Zhang (Zhang Huike), who has dark, mischievous eyes and a rascally smile, is the class' requisite cutup. When he doesn't turn up for school one day, Wei learns that he's been summarily sent to the city to work for his family. A government mandate states that every child must receive schooling, and Wei promised Teacher Gao that there would be the same number of children in class when he gets back as there were when he left (roughly the same number, in fact, of pieces of chalk that the schoolteacher gave Wei to use during his absence). Wei tries to get on a bus to go to the city, and bring Zhang back; when she can't take the bus, she walks to the city.

Some of the scenes in the film -- such as those showing how Wei uses the class' help in figuring out how much it would cost her to accomplish her trip, during which we see her grow as a person and develop rapport with the students -- have a schematic quality to them. The scenes showing Wei's search in the city, though, do not. They are genuinely affecting, perhaps even more so since Zhang Yimou used non-professional actors in the film (many of whom, in the end credits, are revealed to serve in the same capacity and professions, from shop proprietor to village mayor and television station manager, as they do in the film). Both Wei and Zhang Huiki have a spontaneity that comes across in ways that do not make their characters black-and-white. Zhang is not a genuinely mean kid, and Wei is neither entirely helpless, nor does she have a desire to become a stern taskmistress or a martyr. But her determination is quietly intense and fills the second part of the film, so that our feelings, in the end, are genuinely earned.

In a plot move that has particular significance to Western audiences, Wei's search comes to the attention of a TV morning show, which seizes upon it for its human interest angle, and the pert, cosmopolitanly-dressed host (Li Fanfan) presents Wei on the air, to tell the viewers all about her search for Zhang -- whereas Wei, having not grown up in a TV culture that cultivates savvy and self-promotion, promptly goes blank, until the host coaxes her to look into the studio camera's lens and speak as if she were talking to her lost student herself. Later, the show trucks its cameras back to the village to do a follow-up: Zhang is asked what he most remembers about his experiences in the city. The young boy's response is not vain or self-pitying, but direct, levelheaded, and quietly devastating: "That I had to beg for food. I will always remember that."

I would like to add one additional comment pertaining to Not One More. The film was scheduled to be shown locally, once a night, for one week only, in a multiplex auditorium that has forty seats and no stereo. Yet, on the night I attended, three ladies had made the twelve-mile trip from Medford specifically to see this film, and the showing for that night was half full. Yet, how many more people would have attended if it was being shown in better facilities?

Exhibitors and distributors claim that people don't want to see movies with subtitles. This is bushwah. There is an audience out there looking for films such as Not One Less, but places must be made where seeing them doesn't turn a chore, and people can be comfortably  seated and receive the optimum projection and sound that they are entitled to. Otherwise, everyone loses.

Directed by:
Zhang Yimou

Wei Minzhi
Gao Enman
Zhang Huike

Written by:
Shi Xiangsheng




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