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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
A gentle and involving film that touches the heart
Not One Less (1999), directed by Zhang Yimou (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, Shanghai Triad) is a bittersweet drama set in a poor public school in the remote Chinese village of Shuiquan in Hebei province. Based on a book by screenwriter Shi Xiangsheng, who worked as a schoolteacher in Xinjiang, Not One Less illuminates the conditions of children in rural China who have little access to education and are without schoolbooks or teachers with drive or experience.
As the film opens, the regular teacher (Gao Enman) must leave the school to take care of his sick mother and a 13-year old peasant girl (Wei Minzhi) with no previous teaching experience is hired by the Mayor to become the substitute teacher for one month. Teacher Gao, already upset by the number of students who have left the school, tells Wei that when he comes back the number of students must be "not one less". Wei, concerned about receiving her pay of 50 yuan, promises that no student will leave while she is there. The young teacher must control and teach 28 students, most just a few years younger than her. With little resources other than a few boxes of chalk, Wei can do little else than have the children copy an assignment from the blackboard while she sits outside the door to prevent them from leaving.
Teacher Wei runs into difficulty in keeping her promise to Gao when one student is recruited to go to a special sports school. Another student, a bright but mischievous 11-year old, Zhang Huike, is also taken out of school to find work in the city of Jiangjiaou to help his family's finances. The story takes a sharp turn when Wei, determined not to lose any more students, makes plans to raise money to go to the city to find Zhang and bring him back to school. The process of finding the money to allow her to take the bus to the city enables Wei to teach the eager students by constructing real-life problems in simple mathematics.
When Zhang gets lost in the city and lives on the streets, scavenging for food, Wei must summon all her inner resources to try to find him. The scenes in the city use hidden cameras during Wei's interactions with crowds to create a semi-documentary style that reminded me of recent Iranian films that blend fact and fiction. In the process of looking for Zhang, the naive girl from the countryside encounters bewildering obstacles and bureaucratic bungling that are reminiscent of an earlier Zhang Yimou film, "The Story of Qui Ju". At first, Wei's motives in finding Zhang are to make sure she gets paid when Gao returns. However, she soon develops a true affection for Zhang and the result is a desperate search that will take you on an emotional roller coaster ride.
While Not One Less is specifically about economic conditions in rural China, the appealing innocence of the nonprofessional actors (who used their real names to add authenticity to their performance) gives the film a direct emotional appeal that is universal. It may lack the scope and dramatics of earlier Yimou works, but Not One Less is a gentle and involving film that truly touches the heart.
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