By Nicole Kobie
Not One Less should do for Chinese education and rural poverty what Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun did for Tibetan independence. In a word, nothing. While Not One Less is a compelling film, it doesn’t ask for change the way it should.
Set in the Shuiquan Province of China, Not One Less is the story of Wei Minzhi, a 13-year-old school girl recruited to be a substitute teacher in a small village. When the previous teacher leaves to visit his dying mother, he promises Wei a bonus if she manages to keep all 28 students enrolled until he returns. The difficulty is that many students are pulled away from their homes and forced to go to the city to work.
When the class troublemaker Zhang Huike disappears, Wei travels to the city to track him down. Broke and naive, Wei encounters and, naturally, overcomes huge obstacles.
This is where the problem lies. When a story asks for change and calls attention to a problem, it shouldn’t have a happy ending. Every difficulty Wei encounters, from poor funding to Zhang’s disappearance, is overcome by the kindness of the Chinese people. So, why should we help them if they can help themselves?
Director Zhang Yimou obviously isn’t asking for attention, but rather, suggests the problem is solvable, if not already solved. This makes Not One Less a strange movie to produce, and critics at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival called it propaganda. Yimou’s motivation for the film seems confused as he did add a final note to the movie, saying that more than a million children are forced to leave their schools each year.
While Yimou may not have crafted a politically perfect movie, he has created a descriptive and memorable one. Life in rural China is captured beautifully and the characters are true to life–with good reason.
Yimou decided to only cast non-professional actors in all the parts. The character of Wei Minzhi, the 13-year-old school girl, is played by Wei Minzhi, a 13-year-old school girl. The village mayor is played by a real village mayor. This dedication to detail means the audience doesn’t witness the skill of an experienced actor, but gains the believable performance of Wei. Sure, she’s playing herself, but she does it well, somehow managing to portray stubborn bull-headedness alongside delicate insecurity.
Not One Less begins Fri., Aug. 11 at the Plaza Theatre.