Old Schooling
Not One Less
Review by Ross Anthony

When Mr. Gao, Shuiquan Village's only elementary teacher, tends to his ailing mother across China, the mayor hires thirteen-year old Wei Minzhi to substitute. Who else would want to come out to this shabby little town to teach for a mayor who is more full of promises than cash, but a naïve primary school graduate? Wei Minzhi is delightfully unprepared for her role.

Mr. Gao innocently asks, "What can you do?"
"I can sing," WEI MINZHI offers as she teeters her head from side to side.

A student herself, she begins by dispassionately, yet loyally, following teacher Gao's instructions to write the lesson on the board, have the students copy it, then dismiss them only when the sunlight hits a certain nail on the pole. Meanwhile, she waits disinterested at the doorstep as her students battle it out inside.

But the rule Mr. Gao made most clear (backing it up with more promises of payment) was to maintain class size, "When I return I want to see all 28 students - not one less." So when a student is forced to go to the uncaring city in order to earn money for his family, a hardheaded Wei Minzhi runs after.

Though we're never quite sure if her motive is the money, loyalty, sympathy or pure stubbornness; Wei Minzhi's plain-faced boldness, strength and relentlessness win us over.

Overwhelmingly charming in its seductive grit, director Zhang Yimou takes great pains to make the picture real and should be applauded for strictly avoiding the melodramatic -- bringing images and circumstances to the screen that are so real they are at times, boring. In his attempt to emphasize the endurance of this one girl and the reality of her plight, he occasionally over-emphasizes it. Several minutes could have easily been shaven from various endurance sequences. And though I respect his discipline, the wonderful payoff of the climax could have been drawn out just a bit - audiences deserve it for surviving along with Wei Minzhi! Bring some tissues, it's sure to clear your sinuses.

Lastly, the people are wonderfully true! Actual teachers, students, mayors, etc. bring this script to life and sweeten its sincerity. Zhang Huike portrays, with genuine honesty, the smugly grinning kid that learns a hard lesson. Wei Minzhi also nails her tenacious role earning it over thousands of other candidates in part by yelling apathetically into a crowded street corner.

  • Not One Less. Copyright © 2000. Rated G. 106 minutes.
  • In Mandarin with English Subtitles.
  • Starring Wei Minzhi, Zhang Huike, Tian Zhenda, Gao Enman, Sun Zhimei
  • Directed by Zhang Yimou.
  • Written by Shi Xiangsheng.
  • Produced by Zhao Yu at Guangxi Film/Beijing New Picture/Columbia Pictures Asia.


Copyright © 2000. Ross Anthony, currently based in Los Angeles, has scripted and shot documentaries, music videos, and shorts in 35 countries across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. For more reviews visit: RossAnthony.com

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Last Modified: Saturday, 16-Sep-2006 08:02:15 PDT