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 ... See full summary »
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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
Yimou insisted on capturing natural reactions from the amateur actors. To achieve this, he often used hidden cameras and microphones. This resulted in a film-shot to film-used ratio of 35 to 1. Normally, because of cost, the ratio should be 3.5 to 1. However, because the film was shot on 16mm (an later blown up to 35mm), the price was about the same because of the cheaper film stock. See more »
It's the first great film of this year for me. `Not One Less' is storytelling at its dead straightest - most like the work of the contemporary Iranians Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami but also directly connected to the great Neorealists DeSica, Rosselini and Bunuel. All revel in telling culturally specific stories that reflect universal human experiences that are resonant across all time and place. But as I sat there, freshest on my mind was David Lynch's `The Straight Story.' Both Lynch and Zhang take us on a small journey that reflects a world's worth of living. Both show us that harrowing experience and heroism, seemingly small scale in their films, can be writ in large and commanding script across the lives of ordinary people.
Shi Xiangsheng's script is a rural fable based on his own story set in remote China, Hebei - the dry high plains, an undoubtedly stiffening existence. It's shot as beautifully as any of Zhang's films - he's a deft colorist, one of the great painterly directors in cinema (see `Ju Dou' and `Raise the Red Lantern'). The children are crimson-cheeked with complexions warmed and toasted by the unfiltered sun - but they will surely, eventually become worn and parched like their elders, Teacher Gao and Mayor Tian. We see an honest poverty here in great detail. The film's camerawork lets every detail seep into us, allowing us to feel the film's atmospherics and making us thirst in its arid heat and dust. (When the 26 children share 2 cans of warm Coca Cola after a long and hard day, we, too, want to get in line for our sip.)
Thirteen-year-old Wei Minxhi is dragged along by Mayor Tian to the village' s ramshackle one-room schoolhouse to meet Teacher Gao. She is to become the school's substitute teacher for one month while Gao leaves to tend to his ailing mother. He can't in good conscience leave this child to shepherd his children but he is without a choice - it's the kind of hard rationalism that is part of everyday life here. Before leaving, he counsels her sternly and provisions her with only a ragged lesson book and one stick (and only one stick) of chalk for every day he will be gone. He shows her the narrow bed in the adjoining room that she will share with 3 boarding students.
Teacher Gao is an old man who has suffered a lot of dedicated and dictated poverty in order to improve the lot of his village's children. We come to know his commitment to his work even at this stage of his life when he warns her that conditions are hard in this village and that the vicissitudes of life weigh very heavily on the children here. When he says he has already lost 10 students you know he has felt the loss of every single one. He commands her to keep the body of his school together and that when he returns, he wants to see every one of his students present - and not one less.
`Not One Less' is about young Teacher Wei's struggle to meet his simple challenge. We see immediately that she has more reluctance than skill or gumption for this task. But in a culture that expects obedience, she has no recourse. And nowhere else to go. She is more like a sullen older sister than a teacher. And because they are children, the students begin to test her a little. They aren't bratty kids, just rambunctious and resistant to the discipline of schoolwork. She hasn't a clue about how to make them work, so she just writes the lesson on the board and posts herself against the door, barring any escape. Her handwriting is neat and orderly but as the film progresses, we come to see that Teacher Wei is only a little more schooled than her charges.
The great thing about `Not One Less' is its unstinting perspective on the innocence and naiveté that only a child lives in. Teacher Wei and these children are completely guileless, without a window on the wide world, and have none of the knowledge or calculation for the simplest complexities of modern life. The film's crisis is that the class troublemaker, eleven-year-old bumpkin Zhang Huike, leaves unannounced for the city so he can earn money for his destitute family. Wei feels the absolute fear of her failure to keep her pledge and is desperate to go and find young Zhang. Figuring out how to get to the city to find him - for her and these children, it might as well be a search for the Holy Grail. It seems as fraught with myth and legend. Yet she, in her naiveté, is undaunted. Many schemes are attempted and when each fails, she just begins walking, having no idea how far it is or how long it will take her or what lies ahead when she gets there. She just knows she must find him.
Her journey is the quest of her young life just as Alvin Straight's is the culminating quest of his life. It is a defining act for both. There are no earth-shattering twists of plot to keep from you. It is the unfolding of a redemptive story, a boldly honest portrait of a world away from our experience and a young girl's attempt to navigate it with all her will and perseverance and naiveté - and only that - to sustain her. In the end, we feel we have been somewhere we've never been before and, perhaps, learned something that we had long forgotten. It is the singular power of cinema to transport us this way, to jack us directly into a net of experience we can feel so deeply in our hearts.
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