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|Index||71 reviews in total|
6 March 2000
"Not One Less"
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.
At the moment this art house gem of a film rates an IMDB 7.9, so obviously
many of us film buffs love it. This film is innovative, delicate, and
harshly authentic. If you enjoy international film festival flicks, you MUST
see this film. Actually I believe this film should be required viewing for
film students who aspire to be directors, cinematographers,
However, if you prefer action, Hollywood formula flicks, car chases or even complex plots, then avoid this film. You will probably fall asleep or just be irritated.
If you watch this film with your heart, with a good dose of patience, you you will then understand the message. If tears do not come to you during the main character's emotional appeal, then you are probably not aligned with the spirit of this film.
Personally I was stunned by the deep impact this film had on me. Yes, it was indeed 'slow', but this allowed for the genuine portrayal of common hope and suffering. I have been a film buff for over 4 decades and this film stands out as refreshingly different. By the way, it is supposed to be a true story, and this added significantly to the film's realism. Also, it does seem that none of the people in the film were professional actors, which is amazing in spite of a sort of documentary feel at times. If you have an open heart and mind, see it!
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
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!)
It might be a good idea to show this film in all schools in the `civilised'
world! This is, anyway, a delightful story for all the family, hugely
enjoyable, simply and lovingly told, and with just the most marvellous
little Chinese girl imaginable! She has to stand in for the local
schoolmaster who very definitely must go and visit his mother who is ill and
dying. He leaves her in the middle of about twenty kids only a couple of
years younger than herself to get on with the job as best she can, so as to
earn 50 yuan in a school which is falling apart.
Now you might think that such a building could not possibly be a schoolhouse in remote rural China, or anywhere else. I assure you I have seen such schools and not in such remote areas in Indonesia, India, Afghanistan and in what was Portuguese Timor. Even here in Spain, in rural villages high up in the sierras, my wife has worked in schools in little villages where either the floorboards were rotting under her feet in front of the blackboard, or the plumbing did not work, or the lights did not switch on when you wanted them to, or the wood-burning stove in the middle of the room gave off billows of smoke so that you had to open the windows with 10ºC below zero outside, or the window panes had no putty in them, and so on. And this, only a few years ago, in a modern, civilised European country.
Minzhi Wei playing the part of Wei Minzhi, who is herself with her own name (in Chinese the surname is put first) is a thirteen year old who will never make it to Hollywood, but is just the most beautiful school mistress you could imagine! I will not say anything about the story: you can see it for yourself. This young girl had to do it all she is barely ever off the screen.
Yimou Zhang has given us a little gem, a beautiful story, with such wonderful participation by all those children, as well as the fine photography and Bao San's occasional accompanying music.
How nice to see a lovely story so naturally told! Can't we do things like this in Europe and the USA without it being all violence or overladen commercialism for the hungry masses? Can't we tell a real human story without all the technological special effects? Can't we make honest cinema .?
I was moved not only by the cultural value and socio-economic
perspective of the movie, but also by the themes of compassion, hope,
and diligence. As a middle school teacher, I also like how it brings
out the idea that meaningful learning (in the classroom and beyond)
takes place through real-life commitments, situations and applications.
As a note aside, notice the credits; although this movie is based on a Chinese novel, the director selected actors and actresses from the real world to play their real-life partscomplete with their real names and titles. Thus teacher Gao really is teacher Gao! Mayor Tien really is mayor Tien, and the kids, together with Minzhi Wei, really are village children, who have no acting experience. Thus the movie really is "realistic" in a true and meaningful way. Don't miss this one!
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
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.
Not One Less (English title) is a movie that concentrated on why are there
so many Chinese children who quit school. Let's face the facts of
life...poverty can ruin one's plan for the future, and this was evident in
the film. You'll really see how hard life in mainland China is, even though
this is a movie. The story is gripping and very realistic. You'll really
feel the hardness of being in poverty and having to quit what you're doing.
For the characters, Wei is a substitute school teacher who would go to
extremes (high determination) from handling a class to walking around the
city looking for a missing person.
I highly recommend watching this Chinese movie to any movie lover out there. This film is NOT a waste of time, it is simply VERY GOOD.
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.
There isn't much to this story, I but I still liked it. The lead
character, played by Wei Minzhi, is supposed to be playing a
13-year-old girl and was really interesting to watch, as were the young
students and some of the other people in this film.
Oddly, all these actors were amateurs, real-life students and people of varied professions. It's nicely filmed, too, despite the bleak background many times. I find the dialog of many Chinese films to be very pleasing. Yes, there is a lot of receptiveness, at least in the translations, but it's tolerable. There is very little profanity and plenty of good old-fashioned values and feelings of people, simply told. You don't find much of this is in modern-day movies of the Western World. The colors in here - the reds, yellows and oranges - are always a treat for the eyes and the Asian kids' faces are intriguing.
This film is very different from anything Western audiences are used to, but I recommend it for those who realize that fact and are okay with it.
This is the depiction of a true story with the two lead characters performed
by the actual person: Wei Minzhi, 13 year old young girl who is a substitute
for the village teacher, and Zhang Huike, 11 year old young boy who left
school to go to the city to find work to pay for family debt.
It is DERTERMINATION personified. She is one young lady who's not worried about her looks or other people's criticism. She is truly one track minded to find the lost student and to bring him home back to the village, and does not care if others are curt with her, or impolite; she's just very focused on achieving what she came to the city for - to get Zhang Huike back to the village school - no matter what it takes!
Simple setting. Poor village, city hustles. Children interactions/reactions are always a joy to watch. Lead character is devoid of guile and her stubborn determination is direct and innocent. The hesitation in her speech, her pause and silence held her own. Her performance is guileless - plainly so - that's how precious the performance is. An occasional smile is not easy to detect, as she is so engrossed in her mission; the continuous smile towards the end is well earned. There is magic after all.
This is a rare gem from director Zhang Yimou, quite a different flavor from his film collaborations with heaven-sent leading lady Gong Li.
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