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With: Zhang Huike, Wei Minzhi
Written by: Shi Xiangsheng
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
MPAA Rating: G
Language: Mandarin with English subtitles
Running Time: 106
Date: 09/07/1999

Not One Less (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Less' Is More

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Zhang Yimou is known in this country for his colorful epics starring his lovely muse Gong Li. There is always a lot of red in his films, if not in the titles (Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern), then in the cinematography. His new film Not One Less, his first to be released here since 1995's Shanghai Triad, breaks all these traditions.

Not One Less is more about the color of dust than the color of red. It's more about "realism" than about style. And, in fact, not only is Gong Li nowhere to be seen, but nearly everyone in the movie is a non-actor. The movie re-enacts a true story and casts all the real people to play themselves. In the story, a 13 year old girl (Wei Minzhi), finds herself the only possible candidate for a substitute teacher job for a month. She's given a few simple lessons to teach, but above all, she's asked to not let any of the 30 students drop out. If she succeeds, she'll get a bonus on top of her meager salary.

But one of her kids, the class troublemaker (Zhang Huike) is sent to the big city to get a job to support his sick mother. Teacher Wei refuses to let him go and travels to the city against all odds and common sense to bring him back.

Wei Minzhi gives a remarkable performance. Sure, she's playing herself, but that's more difficult than it might seem. She's shy in front of adults and powerful in front of her kids. Her fierce determination to keep all her kids in class is all the more poignant when we consider that she's doing it for a small handful of money. While in the city, we learn very quickly what things cost, and that the money she's getting for a month of teaching would only last a day or two in the real world.

Zhang keeps the story moving by allowing Wei to grow into her duties as a teacher. At first, she seems lost. She can't even remember the lyrics of a song she was supposed to teach. Later, when trying to raise enough money to get to the city, she makes her students do the math on the chalkboard; how much is a bus ticket? How many bricks can we move to earn that much? The students come to respect her for her drive. Director Zhang also gets mileage from a small adorable girl who tries her best to help out.

Not One Less reminded me of some of the wonderful Iranian films about children that I've seen lately, like The White Balloon (1995) and Children of Heaven (1999). These films also subvert the documentary format, telling true stories in new ways, like Close-Up (1990), And Life Goes On (1991), and The Apple (1999). Zhang Yimou may not seem like the right kind of filmmaker to take on this material, with his colors and costumes. And as a result, Not One Less may be mistakenly seen as one of his lesser films. But he has pulled it off splendidly, using his delicate skill in photographing interiors and exteriors slowly, letting us into the space, without slowing down the story. He even makes the sharp juxtaposition between rural and urban without making it obvious or trite. He sees both with the same eye.

I'm amazed at the number of outstanding films coming out of Europe and Asia that are acceptable, and indeed even enjoyable, for children and parents alike. The recent The Cup is a good example, as well as Children of Heaven. Not One Less is in good company, and it's another fine achievement from one of our best filmmakers.

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