Not One Less (1999)

by Todd R. Ramlow


Best Laid Plans

Zhang Yimou’s new film, Not One Less, feels like a movie that, somehow, I am “supposed” to like, and I am not just a little bit anxiety-ridden in admitting that, really, I think it is actually somewhat dreadful. No doubt most (or, at least most Western) critics will be all over themselves promoting the film’s “gritty realism” and offering themselves self-congratulatory slaps on the back for empathizing with the plight of Chinese rural poor, and bemoaning the lack of educational resources available in the far reaches of the People’s Republic. Further, many will certainly avow that Yimou’s decision to employ “real people” (as opposed to “actors”) transcends the limits of traditional cinema verite, just as the film’s simple story and quasi-mythic journey transcends the geographical, political, social, etc., limits of “Chinese cinema.” (These observations have been culled from the U.S. press I have been able to find about the film before its general release) In these regards, my dissatisfaction with Not One Less is, perhaps, less about the film itself than with non-critical, or un-self-conscious Western/U.S. duplicities, as I will explain later.

Based on a book by Shi Xiangsheng (who adapted his novel for the screen), Not One Less takes place in the tiny village of Shuiquan, in the remote, arid, high plains of Hebei Province, as well as in a confusing, depersonalizing and bureaucratic, unnamed “big city.” Like some of Yimou’s other films — To Live (1994), The Story of Qui Ju (1992), Ju Dou (1990) — which portray rural Chinese life, this one largely refuses throughout to in any way romanticize its rustic nature (as some sort of pastoral ideal) or poverty (as productive of some sort of “nobility” of soul/spirit). Additionally, the film doesn’t pathologize poverty by showing or suggesting it has some “organic” connection to vice, criminality, a lack of moral or ethical value, etc. (as U.S. films and tv often depict destitution). This portrayal of rural poverty, which is neither idealized nor pathologized, is one of the film’s most refreshing and moving aspects. Here, poverty is a hard-scrabble way of life that is, nonetheless, not without its (few and far between) joys.

cover art

Not One Less

Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Wei Minzhi, Zhang Huike, Tian Zhenda, Gao Enman

(Sony Pictures Classics)

These joys come largely from the innocence and naivete of the village’s children, who find moments of pleasure and validation in the grinding quotidian details of daily life in their run-down schoolhouse. The story is as follows. Teacher Gao (Gao Enman), of the Shuiquan Primary School must leave his school and pupils for a month to go care for his ailing mother. In order to enable Gao’s journey, village mayor Tian (Tian Zhenda) arranges for 13-year-old Wei Minzhi (Wei Minzhi) to act as substitute teacher. At first Teacher Gao is reluctant to agree to this, claiming Wei will be unable to teach or even control students who are her own age, or barely a few years younger. However, seeing that her substituting is the only available solution, Teacher Gao eventually agrees. Before leaving, however, he gives Wei some brief instruction on what to do in class, shows her where she will sleep (with the three boys and three girls who live at the school with Gao), and provides her with a ratty old lesson book and a single piece of chalk for each day he will be gone (and no more chalk plays a central role in the film’s commentary on the rural poor’s lack of access to educational necessities). Further, as enrollment in the school has been rapidly dropping off (Teacher Gao has lost 12 students since the beginning of the school year, down to 28 from 40), he leaves Wei with the admonition to make sure not to lose anymore students, for which he will pay her an extra 10 yuan on his return to the village.

What follows are the attempts of both students and substitute teacher Wei to adjust to the new school and order, in which Wei’s answer to discipline and schoolwork is to write lessons on the chalkboard for the children to copy, and then sit outside the school door to make sure they don’t leave until the end of the day. That is, this is the story until Zhang Huike, a particularly bright, yet mischievous student is sent to the city to work in order to help pay down some of his family’s debts. Zhang Huike’s departure for the big city asserts the film’s commentary on the lengths to which poverty drives individuals and families; lengths in which education might be perceived as a luxury. Additionally, Zhang’s disappearance sets the stage for the film’s central tension in which rural and urban realities collide. Realizing that her bonus will be in jeopardy if Teacher Gao returns to find Zhang Huike gone, Wei sets off for the big city in order to bring him back.

Before she can set off, however, in what is another of the more enjoyable parts of the film, Wei and the schoolchildren must try to work through the logistical and financial difficulties of getting Wei to the city. How will she get there? How much will it cost? How will they raise the money? In dealing with all these questions, in working together at the mathematics necessary to figure questions of time and money, Wei and the children establish a real closeness, and experience a real sense of accomplishment and the validation of their intelligence and abilities in bringing this plan to fruition.

Of course, the best-laid plans and all of that. Repeatedly, Wei finds that her schemes have all been based on outdated or simply incorrect information, and she is, at every turn, thwarted in her attempt to find Zhang Huike; for instance, when Wei finds that bus fare to the city is 20 yuan, rather than the 3 one of the schoolchildren reported it being, she must set off on foot. And finally reaching the city and tracking down the woman for whom Zhang Huike is supposed to be working, Wei finds Zhang’s employer hasn’t seen him, because she missed him at the bus station on the day of his arrival. At every turn, and at each failure of a new plan, Wei implacably sets out anew, simply wandering around the city, following the merest suggestion of where to look for Zhang Huike, or who or what institution might help her.

Finally, Wei finds herself being interviewed on a television news program about the plight of rural educators and her trip to the city to find Zhang. Having little real experience or knowledge of the difficulties of rural education, Wei’s trademark silence fills up most of the interview, until she makes an impassioned plea to Zhang Huike to return with her to the village. What began as a quest to insure the receipt of her bonus, becomes a search based on the real bond of love and friendship that develops between Wei and Zhang (paradoxically, in their separation from each other), and as we see in her televised plea, and in their reunion and triumphant return to their village.

Likely, this sound like a rather engaging story, and on some level it is. Filmed in Yimou’s graceful and inimitable style, the film raises the classic narrative agon of man versus society, in this case figured in the perseverance of the will, of innocence and of naivete in confrontation with a largely uncaring, bloated, bureaucratic society.

What, then, do I find to be somewhat dreadful about Not One Less?

First is the conjunction of the film’s simple story with what I can only assume (or hope) is some extremely poor subtitling, which produces dialogue that is often repetitive. Upon finally arriving at the television station, Wei finds herself denied entrance because she has neither proper identification nor any money with which to potentially buy airtime for her PSA. So what follows is a long ten minute scene in which Wei stands before the window at the entrance gate, and she and the clerk (Feng Yuying) repeat variations on the lines: “Please let me in” and “You have no ID and no money, you can’t come in.” I recognize that this scene in particular is to represent, in a rather Kafka-esque way, little Wei’s beating her head, and well as her hopes and expectations, against the inflexible routinization of China’s political machine. Nonetheless, these repetitious, bureaucratic nightmares make for some very frustrating viewing. But perhaps that is their very point.

The second disappointment in Not One Less is its cheeseball, happy ending. Of course, what is left out of this ending is the question of whether anything has essentially changed for the children, the school, or the rural poor in general. What happens to the school after the many donations and supplies the school received as a result of Wei’s television appearance run out? Will the village and its school have any greater access to government support or social welfare? Has public or social policy in any way changed so that the children, their school and their village might increase the quality of their rural lives? The answer to these questions is, of course, no. If we might say that Not One Less functions as a sort of propagandist call for the reform of Chinese educational policy (or even a plea for foreign donations, for, as the captioning at the end of the film tells us, small charities alone can go far in offsetting some of the squalor and educational lacks of rural China), then this pat, happy ending is the propagandist equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.

My final disappointment with Not One Less is not so much about the film as it is about the press it has and will no doubt continue to receive. In particular, as I have drawn attention to above, I’m troubled by the critical attention to the film’s “mythic” and “legendary” elements, and how its story “transcends” the geographic, political, economic, etc., limits of its subject matter. In effect, these sorts of critical responses erase the very specificities of rural China that the film tries to address. If Wei’s story is the story of every woman, man, and child, then the details of Chinese rural poverty and lack of adequate educational resources are largely immaterial. In such extolling of the “triumph of the human spirit,” we need not necessarily concern ourselves with the specific debasements of particular individuals or peoples. This common critical reception represents the turning of a blind eye to social, political, and economic inequities in China and internationally, and forestalls any further, deeper audience consideration of how this situation might possibly begin to be rectified, as well as, especially for a Western/US audience, the transnational implications of these inequities, of the differences between “us” and “them.”

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