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In a remote mountain village, the teacher must leave for a month, and the mayor can find only a 13-year old girl, Wei Minzhi, to substitute. The teacher leaves one stick of chalk for each day and promises her an extra 10 yuan if there's not one less student when he returns. Within days, poverty forces the class troublemaker, Zhang Huike, to leave for the city to work. Minzhi, possessed of a stubborn streak, determines to bring him back. She enlists the 26 remaining pupils in earning money for her trip. She hitches to Jiangjiakou City and begins her search. The boy, meanwhile, is there, lost and begging for food. Minzhi's stubbornness may be Huike and the village school's salvation. Written by
Wei Minzhi plays Wei MinZhi, Zhang Huike plays Zhang Huike, the village mayor plays the village mayor... As a matter of fact, and in a clear statement of sort, the whole cast of this movie are real and ordinary people.
Zhang Yimou has gone the extraordinary miles to let reality tell the stories, stories of the decline and poverty in parts of rural China, of heart-wrenching conditions for schools and education under such poverty, of heart-warming spirit of happy, lively and adorable children in Shuiquan school blissfully ignorant of their condition, and of the 13 year old peasant girl Wei Mizhi's single minded determination for "Not One Less".
This movie is Zhang's daring experiment to use "normal reality" to tell reality, and he has achieved convincingly his goal. All characters in this movie are real, as in reality real. They are real because they have no means of being unreal, and that is the whole point of using real people.
Wei Minzhi's self-display (since I can not use the word performance here) is what she is: a 13 year old poor, good-natured, no-nonsense, single minded and tenacious peasant girl. She quickly learns to use her toughness to discipline or even bully her students. She seldom smiles, but is actually a pretty good leader because of her no-nonsense and toughness and single mindedness. She is extremely tenacious and is obsessed with "Not One Less".
The blissfully happy 10 year old trouble-maker and prospect kid migrant worker Zhang Huike's display is just so good that it is almost unreal. The village mayor is a natural real. Sun Zhimei, the girl who lost Zhang Huike in the city, is also as real as you can get.
The people I really like in this movie are the three girl students who sleep in school: Zhang Mingshan, Jiao Jie and Ming Xinhong. Zhang Mingshan is just so pretty and adorable. She is also smart and is a "student cadre". Jiao Jie has a such vivacious smile and has already some good business sense as she comes up with the moving brick idea and the cheating on bus ticket idea. Ming Xinhong loves to run, and her fleeting smile in the car leaving for athlete training school is simply priceless.
Ironically, notwithstanding the poor condition in Shuiquan school, I feel very warm and touched by the good spirit of the children. Shuiquan school is actually working, and working quite well, thanks to good teacher like Gao, good village mayor like Tian, and also to the "student cadre" system, all of which are legacy of Mao's era. Just look at how smart, creative and participating the students are in trying to solve the bus fair problem for Wei Minzhi, you know something is very right in that school. One of the right things in that school is the "student cadres" like the pretty, smart and caring Zhang Mingshan who's title is "study commissar" (xuexi weiyuan), usually the most responsible student in class and a teacher's favorite. We also see a boy "student cadre" in charge of morning "military drill" and flag raise ceremony.
Wei Minzhi is most of the time an uncaring teacher, except the issue of "Not One Less" which involves her pay. The one who real cares and helps out the class is the beautiful "study commissar" Zhang Mingshan. She writes out a student name list for Wei to do roll calls. When Wei sits outside letting trouble maker Zhang Huike reign free, she tells Wei that it is her (Wei) duty as a teacher to do something. When Huike knocks the precious chalks off the ground, she picks up these chalks and telling the tugging and struggling Wei and Huike don't step on the chalks. She even criticizes in her diary (read out by Huike in class over her protests but at the insistence of Wei) that Wei is not taking good care of chalks like teacher Gao would...
A little girl living in poverty and in that utterly dilapidated school but still writes a caring dairy of what is going on in class, something is very right.
Unlike many other Zhang Yimou's movies which are persistently followed with complaint by Chinese audience for "being tailored and catering to foreign taste and curiosity", "Not One Less" is very well received in China. In a surprise reversal of Zhang's fortune with Chinese authority, this movie has even been promoted as a "propaganda material" of sort by the Chinese government in its campaign for better rural education.
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