NOT ONE LESS (Yi ge dou bu neng shao) (China, 1999) ***
Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Shi Xiangsheng, from his novel. Photography, Hou Yong. Editing, Zhai Ru. Art director, Cao Jiuping. Music, San Bao. Cast: Wei Minzhi (Herself), Zhang Huike (Himself), Tian Zhenda (Mayor Tian), Gao Enman (Teacher Gao), Sun Zhimei (Sun Zhimei), Feng Yuying (Television Station Receptionist), Li Fanfan (Television Host). Produced by Zhao Yu. A Sony Pictures Classics release. In Mandarin (with English subtitles). 106 minutes.
The American director Joseph Von Sternberg (1894-1969) comes to mind as I think of the Chinese director Zhang Yimou (b.1951). Sternberg "created" Marlene Dietrich in the "Blue Angel" and six additional films (1930-35), the high point of his career. Their relationship went beyond cinema. Zhang Yimou's feature debut "Red Sorghum" was also that of actress Gong Li. The two were an "item" for about 8 years as he directed her in the highly successful, "Ju Dou," " Raise the Red Lantern," "The Story of Qiu Ju," and "To Live" for a total of 7, including the unfamiliar (to me) "Codename Cougar." Their last collaboration, "ShanghaiTriad" (Yao a yao yao dao wai pei qiao) had mixed reviews. Zhang-ites hope that now Pygmalion minus Galatea will not, as in Sternberg's case, result in declining popularity.
"Not One Less" may put those fears to rest, although Zhang changed style and content so radically that comparisons are not valid. His early career was as a cinematographer. All his films until now have powerful, creative visuals. But here, the customary, delicate bravura (not an oxymoron) of often saturated colors, their orchestrated, eye-arresting scenes, give way to utter simplicity. Made almost like a documentary, the pictures is a cousin of cinema-verite and Italian neorealism.
The village of Shuiquan seems to be in the middle of nowhere, but as it turns out, is 3-4 hours by bus from Beijing. What makes one think "boondocks," is generalized poverty and the fact that we see very little of the place. The images are predominantly of a run-down, one-classroom, one-teacher schoolhouse and of dusty dirt roads around it. Teacher Gao is leaving for a month to attend his ailing mother. Wei, age 13, an elementary school graduate, has been hired as substitute teacher. She's not much older than her pupils. And she does not know much more than they do. The idea is to band-aid the emergency.. Wei will receive 50 yuan at some point (which keeps eluding her) for a month's work. It's essentially a kind of baby-sitting, just keep the kids in class.
According to today's exchange rates, one yuan equals 12 US cents. At the village, once can of Coca-Cola is either one or two yuans. Wei's 50 yuans come to $6.
Given the dire shape of the place, students who need to work for their families or elsewhere drop school alarmingly fast --from 40 to 28 since the school year began. This menaces the subsidies to the school (such as they are!). Teacher Gao warns Wei to hold the line. He sweetens this by promising a bonus (10 yuan) if all 28 kids remain. "Not One Less!"
The conditions at the school, and, surely, in the village, are dismal. Wei and some kids (who is not clear) sleep in a horrid room. Where their food comes from is also unclear. Chalk is rationed: one per day. When some chalk trampled on , it is a catastrophe. There are no books. Wei copies the lessons on the blackboard. She admonishes a child not to write too large or press too much since it uses up too much chalk.
In Part Two of the film, a 10-year old boy, Zhang Huike, smart, lively and prone to trouble-making (pitifully mild by American standards) stops coming to school. His widowed mother is in debt. Zhang went to the big, unnamed city to find work. Through brick-moving the class collects minuscule sum for Wei to go to the city and search for the boy. It is unclear whether she does it to keep the students at the 28 level, or to get her bonus --For a Few Yuan More.
Her small adventures follow, there is a rather unlikely happy ending. As Wei reaches the end of her rope, she is told to take her case to almighty TV. The stumbling block is an autocratic, bureaucratic-to-the-letter receptionist. But a manager ex machina saves the day. Wei goes on a telecast, with a typically chatty, elegant anchorwoman. The newness of it all literally dumbfounds Wei. She freezes, says nothing.
The boy is found, he returns to the village with Wei and a camera crew. But TV micro-celebrity and a gift of tons of chalks solve nothing. End-titles tell us that a million children a year drop school for work. It's a false figure. Reality is ten times higher. But since this is a criticism of China's system, and since director Zhang Yimou has often had troubles with the government and censors, he lowered the figure to what authorities would deem acceptable. In Italian neorealism the movies did not hesitate to show or denounce evils by individuals as well as the state. Matters are much more careful and balanced here, a bit as in old Soviet movies. The TV station bureaucrat receptionist is scolded, and it another bureaucrat who is helpful. The kindness of strangers gets some credit as a restaurant helps hungry Zhan, although this is done primarily to avoid his bothering the customers. You may glimpse a chic woman or two but contrasts are kept down. No discotheques, no pricey stores. You sense the movie's political prudence.
What's new and interesting is that almost all the characters are non-actors who use their real names ands who do in real life what they do on the screen --starting with Wei who was chosen from an enormous field of candidates. What is most successful is how well, starting again with Wei, all those non-professionals fit their roles and situations. Were that the movie could give a big boost to the casting of amateurs. If this escalates the multi-million-dollar salaries of stars could go the way of the walls of Jericho. Fat chance.