|Not One Less
Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer in Persimmon Magazine, vol. 1, no. 3: Fall, 2000.
Zhang Yimous ten feature films to date, beginning with Red Sorghum in 1987, have evoked heated attacks and passionate defenses, both within China and in the international film community. Not One Less is no exception. Released in China in early 1999 to official and critical approval and audience enthusiasm, the film hit a roadblock at the Cannes International Film Festival later that year. Although the circumstances are not entirely clear, preselection comments by Cannes officials suggested that the film was seen as being insufficiently antigovernment, and too propagandistic. Faced with his film being relegated to un certain regard (the secondary, noncompetitive series), instead of being included in the prestigious official selection (the high profile competition at Cannes), Zhang published a letter in the Beijing Youth Daily publicly withdrawing Not One Less (and his other new film, The Road Home) from the festival, and objecting to what he perceived to be a narrowly politicized attitude towards Chinese film: It seems that in the West, there are always two political criteria when interpreting Chinese films, [they are perceived as being either] anti-government or propaganda. This is unacceptable.
The film is set in the present, in a small village in Hebei province. When teacher Gao is called home to care for an ailing relative, the village mayor hires Wei Minzhi as Gaos temporary replacement. Thirteen-year-old Wei is barely older than her students, and her teaching skills are next to nonexistent. But her stubbornness and determination know no bounds. Unsure that the mayor will pay her, Wei focuses on the ten yuan bonus that Gao offers her if all twenty-five students in the class are still there when he returns, and not one less.
Gao leaves Wei a piece of chalk for each lesson, which consists of writing a text on the blackboard for the students to copy. Weis pedagogical methodology seems largely to consist of locking the students in the classroom and guarding the door from the outside. This works until troublemaker Zhang Huike manages to runs away from school, forced to try to find work in the nearby city of Zhangjiakou to support his ailing, debt-ridden mother. Wei now has a mission: to get to the city, recover Zhang, and thus claim her bonus. But by the time she arrives there, Zhang has disappeared. After exhausting but fruitless attempts to find him, Wei approaches the local TV station, whose manager, impressed by her determination, features her on a top-rated social problem program. Zhang sees the show, and the producers return him and Wei to their village, donations and extra chalk for the school in hand.
In outline, the plot seems like a recipe for something merely sentimental. But Not One Less is not just a story about cute kids, helpful adults, and happy endings. These elements are present, though, and do contribute to the audience-friendly feel of the film, a quality which accounts not only for its popularity with Chinese audiences, but also for its perceived marketability by North American multinational corporate distributors.
The neorealist elements of Not One Less contribute to its ability to transcend the sentimental. All of the actors in the film are amateurs. Moreover, most play a version of who they are in real life: the mayor is actually Tian Zhengda, a village mayor; the TV station manager is, in fact, the manager of a local station in Zhangjiakou. The two central children, Wei Mingzhi and Zhang Huike, who play characters of the same name, were found in rural Hebei schools after a long search by the director and his team. This semidocumentary aspect of Not One Lessits use of hidden cameras (during Weis interactions with crowds in the city, for example), location shooting, and natural lightingresults in a fascinating uncertainty. There is a sort of ambivalence or play between the different genres of realism, staged documentary, and fiction that is reminiscent of recent masterpieces of Iranian cinema (Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami being the two most prominent exponents) [...].
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