Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Not One Less

By Marjorie Baumgarten

APRIL 3, 2000: 

D: Zhang Yimou; with Wei Minshi, Zhang Huike, Tian Zhenda, Gao Enman, Sun Zhimei. (G, 106 min.)

The strategies employed by famed Chinese director Zhang Yimou in his latest work mark a fascinating shift from the highly textured dramas that established his reputation. In such previous films as Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, Zhang focused on melodramatic stories whose social and emotional contexts are made palpably evident onscreen and always starred the fabulous Gong Li. With Not One Less Zhang turns his attention to a broader canvas, to the masses of children growing up in the countryside who still face the deprivations of poverty and inadequate schooling. In many ways, Not One Less resembles the socialist-realist dramas of the early Communist regimes. But Zhang has something smarter and more amusing up his sleeve. Shot in a documentary style and using nonprofessional actors, Not One Less is set in the Shuiquan Primary School in a dirt-poor village not far from Beijing. When the one-room schoolhouse's grizzled old teacher has to leave for a month to visit his dying mother, the village mayor appoints the most qualified person he can find to substitute teach ­ a 13-year-old girl named Wei Minzhi. That she is hardly much older or bigger or knowledgeable than her charges is filmed in a way that captures boththe situation's comic absurdity and desperate poignancy. Furthermore, Wei is promised that if all 28 children are still in school when the teacher returns she will receive a bonus. Thus her pedagogical technique is to give her students busy work and then guard the door. But one day she learns her most troublesome student has been sent to the city to alleviate his family's indebtedness and in her stubbornness, she sets off to retrieve him. It's during this last third of the movie that the story bogs down a bit as Wei wanders the city streets, becoming little different than any of the thousands of other poor urchins without roofs over their heads. Until then, there are wonderful sequences like the one in which the children use math to calculate how many hours they would have to work to buy Wei a bus ticket to the city and a celebration in which the treat is a warm can of Coke shared among all the classmates. Zhang uses these comic misadventures to make his points about the fate of children who have been overlooked in the rush to modernity. And, ironically, Zhang (who frequently has had trouble with Chinese censors on previous films) may find that his critique of contemporary Chinese domestic policy may be embraced more warmly at home than some of his more oblique parables.

3.5 Stars

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