Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s “Not One Less” is a rather moving but slightly befuddled film about the difference between childhood and adulthood, and the importance of individuals.
Set in the tiny remote village of Shuixian, the story follows Wei Minzhi, a 13-year-old girl who is called upon to substitute teach at the local schoolhouse for a month while the regular teacher is away on personal business. She is promised extra pay if no students have gone missing when the teacher returns.
This sounds like a simple enough task, but the class has already dwindled from 40 to 28 students due to poverty: Kids keep having to drop out and find work. Determined to get her bonus, Wei spends most of the classroom time guarding the door to make sure none of the rambunctious little grade-schoolers wanders off.
Zhang Huike, the class goof-off and trouble-maker, finally must leave school to find work and support his widowed mother. Wei learns he has gone to the big city and sets off after him, despite having no clue how to find him and very little experience in towns larger than Shuixian.
Part of the film’s trouble comes here, as Wei’s motives are unclear. At first she seems doggedly determined just to earn that extra money, and not too concerned about the actual welfare of the students. Why, then, does she put so much effort into finding Wei? She spends far more money finding Zhang Huike than she will get for keeping him. Certainly her thoughts must turn from money to compassion at some point; the question is, when does this happen, and what inspires it? The movie doesn’t tell us.
There’s also the matter of a girl who leaves school to become a professional runner. How this will affect things winds up being virtually ignored.
Quibbling aside, Zhang Yimou used an interesting casting technique that is surprisingly effective: Each of the characters is played by a non-actor who fills that role in real life. (They use their real names, too.) The teachers are played by teachers, a secretary is played by a secretary, a TV station manager is played by a TV station manager, etc. This results in a few performances that are obviously non-professional — the television host who helps Wei find Zhang Huike, for example — but the effect is generally more charming and sincere than you’d get from any but the most adept professional actors.
Wei Minzhi, in particular, gives quite a performance as the young substitute teacher, deftly walking the line between childhood and adulthood. A 13-year-old can be very mature, but when she reaches the big city, we realize how young she really is. (This is especially true when she appears on a local TV show and is bewildered by the cameras and bright lights.) The viewer feels a strong sense of helplessness and frustration as she works tirelessly to find her student. A happy ending is the only real option.
B+ (; )