Not One Less

on February 18, 2000 by Annlee Ellingson
   Temporarily abandoning his colorful palette and lyrical style, director Zhang Yimou has tackled social commentary, using his medium to expose the vast differences between city life and rural life and the struggling Chinese school system as his allegory.
   Consisting of a cast of non-professionals who use their own names and portray characters from their own walks of life, "Not One Less" is the determined journey of Wei Minzhi, a 13-year-old peasant who agrees to substitute for the local schoolteacher while he visits his mother's deathbed. Having lost several students recently, Teacher Gao instructs her that if there is "not one less" student when he returns, she will earn an additional 10 yuan.
   What follows are some hilarious scenes of young children, like all young children, being mischievous and adorable. Wei has no experience with authority, so she instructs them to copy their lessons from the board while she guards the doors from potential escapees. But when Zhang Huike, a particular handful, is sent to the city to work for his family, Wei is determined to bring him back, at first for the bonus but later because she cares for him.
   Unwittingly, Wei blossoms into an excellent teacher, constructing real-life math problems for her students as they figure out how much time and money they need to fetch Zhang from the city and ultimately instructing them in social responsibility. But none of their strategies pan out, so she simply walks to the city, discovering that Zhang was lost at the train station on his first day there and may suffer the fate of a street urchin. Through naivety and sheer force of will, she seeks him out, soliciting help from concerned citizens, who respond by bringing attention to the situation and raising money for the poverty-stricken village (a phenomenon emulated in real life upon "Not One Less'" release).
   As charming as it is important, "Not One Less" has all the elements of a great drama: inspiring performances, the ability to make one laugh and cry and a subject matter worthy of further contemplation. Starring Wei Minzhi, Zhang Huike, Tian Zhenda, Gao Enman, Sun Zhimei and Feng Yuying. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Shi Xiangshen. Produced by Zhao Yu. Drama. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Not yet rated. Running time: 106 minutes
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