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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 (played by Wei Minzhi, essentially playing herself) is a 13-year-old peasant girl pressed into being "Teacher Wei" at a small rural elementary school when the regular teacher must take a month off. She knows one song (a Maoist propaganda song) and that not very well. She hasn't a clue about how to manage a classroom. Her arithmetic is suspect and her people skills are those of a self-centered beginner. It's not even clear that she wants to do the job. In fact she seems more concerned about the 50 yuan she's supposed to get than anything else.
Thus acclaimed Chinese film maker Zhang Yimou sets the stage for a most compelling fairy tale which illustrates how the determined spirit of a little girl might triumph over poverty, ignorance, and the hard-headed reality of the post-Maoist bureaucratic society.
And is she determined! She is given 30 pieces of chalk and warned not to waste any of it. The lesson plans are to copy some lessons on the chalkboard and to get the students to copy the copy. That's it! Both the regular teacher and the town's mayor point to the other as the one who will pay her. When the regular teacher starts to leave without paying her, she chases after him. She is told she will get paid when he returns, and if all the students are still enrolled, she will get a ten-yuan bonus.
Thus we have the movie's title and the source of "Teacher Wei's" determination. When one little girl is picked to go to a sports camp because she can run, Wei hides her from the authorities. When Zhang Huike, the class trouble-maker (played by Zhang Huike), quits school and heads for the city to find work, Wei schemes ways to get him and bring him back.
At this point the magic begins. With this common goal both teacher and the kids figure out ways to raise money to send Wei by bus to the city and back.
They figure the cost for Wei's round trip and for Zhang Huike's one-way trip back, with the kids themselves taking the initiative at the chalkboard with the math. Wei makes them empty their pocketbooks, and when there is not enough she takes them on a field trip to a brick-making factory and together they move bricks to raise the cash. Again they calculate how many bricks they must move at so many "cents" per brick.
I mention all this because what is demonstrated, by the by, is some real teaching and learning taking place. In fact the mayor comes by and peeks into the classroom and is delighted to see that the substitute teacher knows how to teach math!
This sequence of events is very moving and is at the heart of the film. Any teacher anywhere in the world will recognize how brilliantly this is done. The kids become so eager to learn that they learn effortlessly, which is the way it is supposed to be. Furthermore, one of the phenomena of the profession is exemplified: that of the real teacher learning more (partly because she is older) than the students from the lessons they encounter.
Now, it is true that director Zhang Yimou does not show us the real poverty that exists in China nor does he point to the horrid dangers encountered by children who go to the city to work. Neither the little boy nor Teacher Wei is preyed upon in the manner we might fear. Recapitulations of the baser instincts of human beings are not part of Zhang Yimou's purpose here. This is in fact a movie that can be viewed by children, who will, I suspect, identify very strongly with the story. Zhang Yimou is talking to the child in all of us and he does it without preaching or through any didactic manipulation of adult verses child values. It is true he does manipulate our hearts to some degree, but with all the ugliness that one sees in the world today, perhaps he can be allowed this indulgence.
Although I would not say that this film is as good as Zhang Yimou's internationally celebrated films such as Red Sorghum (1987) (his first film) or Raise the Red Lantern (1991) (which I think is his best film) or The Story of Qiu Ju (1991) (which this film resembles to some extent), it is nonetheless a fine work of art exemplifying Zhang Yimou's beautiful and graceful style and his deep love for his characters and their struggles. And as always his work rises above and exists in a place outside of political propaganda as does the work of all great artists.
Perhaps more than anything else, however, one should see this movie to delight in the unselfconscious, natural, and utterly convincing "amateur" performance by Wei Minzhi as a most determined and brave little girl. She will win your heart.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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