Not One Less | Zhang Yimou

This story of a school set in a place you’ve never heard of becomes as important as the fate of the richest kingdom.

Wei Minzhi in Not One Less

I’m on a “What did they do before they were famous?” kick these days, and the recent release of The Great Wall (to mixed critical reaction, although I liked it better than most) by Zhang Yimou provided a great excuse to review some of his previous efforts. Here’s a fun fact: Zhang directed the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, which took the concept of live spectacle to a whole new level. On a more conventional note, he’s well known for intense wuxia dramas like House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006). But Zhang has also excelled at telling more intimate stories, a case in point being 1999’s Not One Less.

A bit of historical background may be helpful. In 1986, the National People’s Congress in China decreed that every child should receive nine years of compulsory education, but reforms happened more quickly in the cities than in the countryside. Large numbers of rural students continued to drop out of their local schools, so in 1993, China made another big push to improve rural education. School reform doesn’t come any easier in China than it does in the United States, however, and part of Not One Less (which takes place somewhat after 1993; time and place are deliberately left nebulous) demonstrates just why that is the case.

The first time we see Wei Minzhi (Minzhi Wei; characters are typically named the same as or very similarly to their actors), she’s walking down a dirt road, carrying a large bundle and struggling to keep up with her male companion. A donkey crosses their path as they come to some rundown buildings that turn out to be part of a rural school. The man (who turns out to be the town mayor) deposits Wei to the care of “Teacher Gao” (Enman Gao), and we learn that Wei, who’s all of 13 years old, is supposed to serve as a substitute teacher at the school for a month so Gao can go home to visit his sick mother.

After giving her a quick overview (the school has 28 pupils in first through fourth grade), Gao expresses his doubts that she’s up to the task. Students have been dropping out at a rapid pace, and keeping rural students enrolled is something of an obsession with the government. The bureaucratic focus on numbers is also the source of the title: Gao promises Wei a bonus if all the current students are still at the school when he returns. Keeping them enrolled is all he expects, with no concern for whether they’re learning anything. This is clear from the teaching method he recommends to her: Copy a lesson from a tattered book onto the blackboard each day, and if the students finish early, have them copy it again. Gao counts out one piece of chalk for each day he will be gone, introduces her to the five students who board at the school (she’s also responsible for cooking for them and herself), and then departs after informing her he hasn’t been paid for six months.

Wei takes her role seriously, but it’s not surprising that her students are disinclined to respect the authority of a teacher not much older than themselves. They also don’t see much point in school, viewing it as something they must endure until they can get a job. As soon as Wei turns her back, they’re playing and fighting, claiming they can’t do the lesson while she insists that no one gets to go home until they have completed it. (She sits outside the door to prevent escape attempts.)

One day, a track coach comes to the school to recruit one of the girls, Min Zinhong, to a city sports school. The mayor wants her to go, and eventually prevails over Wei’s efforts to keep her class intact. (It’s not mentioned in the film, but China has been known to pay bonuses to local officials if their students move up the athletics food chain.) When a second pupil, the troublemaker Zhang Huike, disappears, Wei is determined to track him down. That quest results in her walking to the nearest city where she believes he has gone to work, and basically using all her resources to try to find him and convince him to return.

There’s no thrilling spectacle in Not One Less. The landscape is dry and dusty, people’s clothes are shabby, and days are filled with dull and pointless activity. Everyone in any position of authority tells lies and all seem motivated by money alone, because by their point of view, any other way of thinking is ridiculous. Wei is not yet part of this adult system of duplicity, and her determination places her in sharp contrast to the older characters who are content to fit into the system as it exists. If stubbornness were an Olympic sport, Wei would win the gold medal, but she’s up against some formidable barriers. One of the most obvious is the gulf between rural and urban China, which is highlighted once Wei reaches the city, where everyone immediately spots her rural origins and reflexively discounts her. Spending a few more years in school won’t appreciably lessen that gulf for her pupils, which helps explain why so many drop out at an early age.

The relentlessly small scale of Not One Less is essential to its power. Gradually, this story of a school set in a place you’ve never heard of becomes as important as the fate of the richest kingdom, and the struggles of this underprepared teacher and her pupils take on the nobility of the most impressive movie quest. At the same time, the film remains firmly grounded in its rural context, with the neorealist style of cinematographer Hou Yong making it seem almost like a documentary. There are no big names in the cast to distract you, and most of the roles are, in fact, filled by amateurs playing versions of themselves (so the actors playing students are students in real life, the actor playing the mayor is actually a mayor, and so on). Zhang is neither the first nor the last to use this method of casting (one of the more obvious and successful recent examples being Laurent Cantet’s 2008 Cannes-winning The Class), and in this film, it’s the perfect choice for keeping the story grounded in the real, lived experiences of the characters in the story. | Sarah Boslaugh

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