This is a curiously modest and understated film from director Zhang Yimou, best known for such lush, terse pieces as Raise the Red Lantern (1991).
Not One Less is a relaxed, fully naturalistic film about a social problem – the high number of children in Chinese schools who must abandon their studies for the sake of work and family commitments.
Like most social-issue movies, Not One Less has the air and manner of a propaganda film – albeit a gentle and agreeable piece of propaganda. However, its earnest tone almost entirely overwhelms its potential qualities as a film.
The actors lend their own names to the characters whom they play, and in some cases play themselves.
Wei Minzhi is a thirteen-year-old substitute teacher at Shuiquan Primary School, largely unequipped to handle the classroom needs of a bunch of very young children.
Despite inevitable difficulties and a pitiful lack of resources – blackboard chalk is especially scarce – Wei bravely and full-bloodedly commits herself to the job. The crunch comes when her feistiest and most troublesome student, Zhang Huike, heads off to the city and does not return to class. Wei follows him.
Suddenly and deliberately, Not One Less switches from being a movie about classroom practice to a portrait of city life. Wei waits for long hours outside the gate of a TV station, hoping to broadcast a bulletin that will somehow bring Zhang back to his education. Meanwhile, the child wanders, lost, jobless and hungry.
Zhang seems to have been inspired by Italian neo-realist classics here – so much so that one expects to spot a nasty bicycle thief or a humble shoeshiner around every corner. But this is not a depressing or melancholic film about social woes. In fact, its faith in community spirit (even in the mass media) is refreshing and uplifting.
Not One Less is exactly what it intends to be – simple, heartwarming, effective in its statement and consideration of a prevalent social dilemma. Sadly, Zhang hand as an artist and craftsman is virtually invisible, apart from his skill in directing kids to treat acting like play, rather than pretence or performance.
MORE Zhang: Red Sorghum
© Adrian Martin February 2000