More importantly, Gao implores her to keep watch over the children and not let them run away from school to go work in the nearby city. He wants every student to still be there when he returns. "Not one less," he instructs, quietly, and agrees to pay her a little extra out of his own pocket if need be. Most deals among adults and children are negotiated in such a way, and even the classroom children understand and value the power of currency. Such is the life of rags and poverty.
Wei is not a particularly good teacher, neither patient nor readily outspoken. She mostly leaves the kids to their own devices. Free rein is given to the mischievous, ever grinning class clown (Zhang Huike,) who would be a holy terror were it not for that adorable, toothy smile and a barely detectable sense of decency underneath the relentless prankster.
It's a battle of wills between Teacher Wei and Student Zhang, who actually drives her into action and forces her to take some small touch of effort and responsibility in the dynamics of class control. However, after a particularly striking confrontation over another child's diary, the little Zhang runs away to make a living sweating in cheap restaurants and laundromats in the city. Teacher Wei has to make good on her promise to Teacher Gao, following this boy not much younger than she into a strange city, trying to bring him home. Of course, first she has to get enough money for bus fare in a poor village, and proceeds to extorting the kids. "Who has money? Put it on the desk!" she says. The kids, wise to her, say they don't have any, even if they do.
In a recent interview, director Zhang Yimou remarked that in his research for this project, he kept encountering children who had no access to education, without schoolbooks or teachers with drive or experience. While not based on a true story, though it seems it could be, he cast nonprofessional actors who live in such a village.
All the children and some of the adults (the crooked mayor, the old schoolteacher, the city townspeople) use their real names. This makes the film feel like a documentary. Zhang Yimou shot it in such a way (with the cameras kept hidden and unobtrusive) to allow these untrained performers room to simply behave naturally. It's a wonderful conceit.
A poem of the rituals of these lives with a keen understanding of the social and political forces at work, the film and characters received instant empathy from international audiences. Teacher Wei and the charismatic Student Zhang may not be perfect - they are kids after all, with all the good and bad which that implies - but they are genuinely likeable, even lovable. They're in a situation that you'd have to have a heart of stone not to care about.
Though it never teeters into sentimentality, Not One Less inspires genuine tears and laughter. It serves as a reminder of how much blind, stubborn courage and resolve can possibly accomplish. It doesn't play out as phony as the documentary eye keeps the events truthful and genuine. It manages to make the audience think and feel very much without playing out as an easy crowd pleaser. It's a great film, one which set the year of movies in 2000 off to a powerful start.
Aka Yi ge dou bu neng shao.
Run time: 106 mins
In Theaters: Saturday 30th October 1999
Distributed by: Sony Classics
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
Fresh: 41 Rotten: 2
IMDB: 7.8 / 10
Director: Yimou Zhang
Producer: Yu Zhao
Screenwriter: Xiangsheng Shi
Starring: Minzhi Wei as Wei Minzhi, Huike Zhang as Zhang Huike, Zhenda Tian as Village Chief, Enman Gao as Teacher Gao, Zhimei Sun as Sun Zhimei, Yuying Feng as TV Receptionist, Fanfan Li as TV Host, Yichang Zhang as Mr Zhang, instructor, Zhanqing Xu as Brick factory owner, Hanzhi Liu as Zhang Huike's mother, Ma Guolin as Bus station man, Wu Wanlu as TV station manager, Liu Ru as Train station announcer, Wang Shulan as Stationery store clerk, Fu Xinmin as TV station director, Mei Bai as Manager, Juxin Restaurant