Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Movie – Not One Less (1999)

Director Zhang Yimou established himself in the early 1990s with such films as Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern.  In the 2000s he turned his considerable talents to a set of wuxia movies.  In between he did some quieter films.  Among them was the movie Not One Less.  The title of the movie is actually shown with the picture of a child between the words “One” and “Less”, making the title more like “Not One Child Less.”  That’s important because that is the theme of the movie.

Zhang did something different on this film – he hired all non-actors for the roles.  In fact, most of the people appear in the same professions that they had in real life and they go by their real names.  The movie is not a documentary, though.  It is completely fictional.

Minzhi Wei stars as a thirteen year old girl put in a difficult situation.  It’s modern day China, but out in the country where a small village has little money for the local school.  The teacher has to leave for a month and the village leader hires Minzhi to come in to teach children that are not much younger than she is.  Her family is very poor and she has taken the job because they need the money.  She has no experience being a teacher, and especially no experience maintaining discipline in a classroom.

The village leader is not much help.  He is more concerned with how much chalk she uses than he is the education of the children.  As a compromise he does promise her an additional payment if she maintains a full classroom until the real teacher gets back – “not one child less”.

She has particular issues with a boy in the class.  He is always making trouble and alienates other students.  It isn’t long before he agrees to go to the city with someone instead of staying in class.

By this time Minzhi has started to win over some of the students.  She presents the problem of how to get the boy back as lessons in the classroom.  How much money would be needed? (math)  How long to get to the city? (geography)  The students pitch in and help come up with the money she needs to travel to the city.

Once she is there, though, how is a thirteen year old country girl supposed to find one little boy in the midst of a big city?  The quality that kept her going in the classroom is the same one she puts to use in the search – her stubbornness.  She just does not believe in giving up no matter what, especially with how badly her family needs the money.

Overall, the movie is a comment on the state of education in rural China.  Some people praised Zhang for bringing a light to bear on how bad the conditions are, but others blasted him as just being a mouthpiece for the Chinese government.  The important thing is that this movie stirs up some emotions, whether it is annoyance at the village leader, like or dislike for the teacher, sorrow at what the boy goes through once he reaches the city, etc.

At the time I watched the movie I did not realize that the performers were not trained actors.  I did notice that Minzhi seemed to hesitate at times before delivering her lines, but it actually works into the movie well because those are the times that her character is supposed to be a little lost on what her next step should be.  I found out that in one scene Zhang simply told the person playing a city bureaucrat to not grant the girl’s request no matter what and he told the girl to not take “no” for an answer, no matter what.  The result is a scene where both people are playing roles that are stubbornly opposed to each other, which is exactly what it would have been in real life.

I may have made this movie sound dark and depressing.  It’s not.  Ultimately, it is an uplifting story about perseverance and the will of a young girl to succeed.  Unless you cannot stand subtitles I highly recommend this movie.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

[Note – you can see all the Movies by Numbers, as well as get some hints on what’s to come, at this link.]

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  1. The realism of it is what drew me in and the fact that it was played by non-actors made it more engaging. Sure, I had a few issues with its pacing and got annoyed by cracks in the print of it. Still, I liked it a lot and I think more people should see it.

  2. @thevoid99 - "I think more people should see it." I completely agree. Thanks.