‘Not One Less’ Proves a Departure for Zhang
It’s characteristic of great chefs that even the simplest dishes they create bear the mark of their gift and their skill. It’s the same with film directors, which speaks to the success, and the surprise, of Zhang Yimou’s “Not One Less.”
An unadorned, sentimental story about schoolchildren in rural China, “Not One Less” has a warmth and sweetness that is especially hard to resist because its director is such a skillful filmmaker and because his interest in this neorealistic tale is so evident.
At the same time, it’s difficult not to notice how different “Not One Less” is from the previous work of a creative force who, along with Chen Kaige (“Farewell, My Concubine,” “The Emperor and the Assassin”) and Tian Zhuangzhuang (“The Blue Kite”), is one of the most gifted of China’s celebrated Fifth Generation group of directors.
Zhang is best-known for visually opulent, emotional melodramas like “Red Sorghum,” “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Shanghai Triad,” films that were also united by the presence of actress Gong Li, who was the director’s real-life partner.
Now that these two are no longer an item, either personally or professionally, Zhang has changed his focus. “Sometimes you miss what you have not been eating,” he pithily informed the New York Times. “I decided to make films about little people; ordinary, common people.”
Certainly “Not One Less” fits that description. Set in the hardscrabble village of Shuiquan, it details the varying crises that result when the local instructor, Teacher Gao, has to leave the area for a month to care for his ailing mother.
The only substitute the town’s beleaguered mayor can scrounge up is a 13-year-old girl named Wei Minzhi, not the ideal caretaker for a group of 28 rambunctious, cute-as-the-dickens students.
Though he’s dubious, Teacher Gao gives newcomer Wei the benefit of his experience. Words written on the blackboard “should be as big as a donkey’s turd,” he advises, and chalk is at so much of a premium that no more than one piece can be used per day. And, because education is not a priority for rural students, the teacher promises Wei a bonus if all the pupils, “not one less,” are in the classroom when he returns.
Wei Minzhi does not appear to be top teacher material, but she has a stubborn spunkiness that serves her well. And she’s so determined to earn her bonus she even tries to sabotage the transfer of one of her athletically promising students to a prestigious sports program in the big city.
But Wei Minzhi’s greatest crisis comes when the class scamp, the troublemaking Zhang Huike, is pulled out of school because of economic necessity and shipped off to the city of Jiangjiakou to help support his sick mother. Determined to get him back, Wei Minzhi has to fall back on her own resources and her class for support, a process that proves to be educational all the way around.
Director Zhang, working from a screenplay by Shi Xiangsheng, has done several things to enhance his film’s connection to real life, starting with casting the project entirely with nonprofessionals. He’s also used individuals, like the village mayor, who do the same thing in real life they do on screen, allowed people to keep their real names in the movie, and at times used hidden cameras to help his cast forget that they’re acting.
As with the new wave of neorealistic Iranian films, “Not One Less” is slow getting started. But, helped by unexpected emotional moments like a tiny student’s ode to Teacher Gao’s passion for chalk, it builds to an involving, albeit earnest conclusion.
Though the film does take a few relatively mild shots at rural poverty and the shortcomings of the country’s education system, “Not One Less’ ” modified gee-whiz nature makes you wonder if the director’s past difficulties with the Chinese authorities was an unspoken factor in his making this kind of film today. For an artist with Zhang’s scope, this Chinese version of the old Soviet “boy loves tractor” movies, no matter how deftly and lovingly executed, has to feel like an unnerving departure.
* MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: nothing disturbing.
‘Not One Less’
Wei Minzhi: Wei Minzhi
Zhang Huike: Zhang Huike
Tian Zhenda: Mayor Tian
Gao Enman: Teacher Gao
Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Zhang Yimou. Producers Zhao Yu. Executive producer Zhang Weiping. Screenplay Shi Xiangsheng. Cinematographer Hou Yong. Editor Zhai Ru. Costumes Dong Huamiao. Music San Bao. Art director Cao Jiuping. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
In limited release.