Perhaps the most interesting thing about this well-meaning but awkward slice of Chinese neo-realism is that it was directed by Zhang Yimou, who achieved international fame with such ambitious period pieces as Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991). Until now, Zhang’s films have been a combination of high-toned soap opera and implicit social critique, an engrossing mix usually centered around the charismatic actress Gong Li. But Not One Less represents a dramatic departure from his usual methods, using nonprofessionals instead of actors to tell a present-day story that’s barely dramatized.
Though it has a superficial resemblance to his earlier The Story Of Qiu Ju (1992), which starred a deglamorized Gong as a peasant woman whose obstinacy is pitted against an unresponsive bureaucracy, Not One Less evinces such a rigorous dedication to a nearly documentary approach that it’s less compelling as a conventional story than as an accumulation of vérité details.
The first half of the film is set in a remote village in the Chinese countryside and tells how 13-year-old Wei Minzhi becomes the substitute and apparently only teacher at the local elementary school. The poverty is palpable as the young girl, judicious in her use of valuable chalk, attempts to interest her easily distracted charges in the basics of reading and writing.
Since the size of the small school fund is determined by the number of its students, Minzhi has vowed to end her tenure as a sub with “not one less” than she began, and so when the egregiously puckish Zhang Huike takes off for the big city, she follows in an effort to find and retrieve him. With a determination bordering on obsession, she pursues various ineffectual means until, in a sequence that may or may not be intended as satirical, she ends up on a “human interest” TV show pleading for young Huike to come home.
With its barren setting, stiff performances from the adults and cutesy ones from the kids, the film’s first part seems interminable. Things pick up a bit once Minzhi arrives in the cold, hard city and puts her neurotic pluck to good use. Still, even in the chancy milieu of rigorous naturalism one would expect a little lyricism, if not grace, from a director as accomplished as Zhang. He seems to have succumbed to the overrated virtue of modesty and one hopes that the indulgence is only temporary.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday-Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].