"Has apparently become required viewing for all educators in China."
Most 13-year-old kids are attending junior high, doing homework, hanging out with their friends, griping about their teachers and ready to leap off into puberty. But the 13-year-old young girl in NOT ONE LESS doesn’t have time for this because in fact, SHE IS the teacher.When a primary schoolteacher in a small Chinese village has to leave for a month the only substitute to be found is a 13-year-old girl named Wei. It’s established early on that Wei (Wei Minzhi) doesn’t care much for the kids or the teaching profession. She is only in it for the money. The only requirement she is concerned with is making sure that there is "not one less" student at the end of a month at which point she will be paid the normal fee plus a small bonus for keeping all the kids in school.
After this preliminary set-up the film becomes more interesting when one little girl is taken away to another school and an 11-year-old boy runs away to work in the city. Frantic now that she will not get her bonus Wei decides to go to the city and at least bring the boy -- Huike (Zhang Huike) -- back.
Wei doesn’t have enough money for the bus fare so she formulates a plan to collect as much money from the students as she can and take a bus to the city. Of course, the kids don’t have money so she decides to take them to a brick factory where they can learn the value of hard labor as well as earn a few bucks. Imagine a bunch of first to fourth graders doing hard labor and you get the somewhat shocking and obviously humorous point of this scene.
Wei is able to parlay this into both a capitalistic venture and a math lesson. Ironically, even though she is brash with the kids and uncouth about gathering the money she at least starts to communicate with them. Her stern attitude begins to soften and thus the bond begins. Once Wei leaves the village the second half of the movie has her wandering the crowded city streets trying to get help to find Huike.
Over the course of a couple days she persistently does all she can to get the word out about the missing boy but all she finds is resistance and indifference. Director Zhang Yimou – the preeminent Chinese filmmaker today – is notable for making period dramas with social contexts and tragic outcomes. Here he focuses his efforts on contemporary China in a neo-realist type mode. Specifically the low education standards and lack of resources in rural areas of China, the demands for children of poor income families to work as well as the apathetic attitudes of the masses wrought by overpopulation in the cities. But the film is also about how a young schoolteacher – considerably rude to everyone at first – learns how to begin caring about her life and about the lives of the kids.
Yimou put Gong Li on the map of stardom with RED SORGHUM and JU DOU and many others have fine performances that have helped his films garner numerous awards. Remarkably, NOT ONE LESS has a cast made up of non-professionals many of whom are playing themselves. Yet, it’s indicative of Zhang’s talent that the film won top prize at the Venice Film Festival last fall.
Although the film has been labeled propaganda by some, Zhang really doesn’t beat us over the head with his message, that is unless you consider compassion heavy-handed.And, in fact, the film has apparently become required viewing for all educators in China. This is something you couldn’t say about TEACHING MRS. TINGLE and many other Hollywood movies on the subject of teaching. --- Matt Langdon - iF Magazine (http://ifmagazine.ifctv.com)