Schoolkids help `Not One Less'

April 07, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Not One Less" is by turns an understated and operatic melodrama, a vivid slice of life in China's countryside and an undeniably heartfelt polemic about the state of education in that country.

Zhang Yimou, director of glorious historical epics "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Shanghai Triad," has brought his scale down considerably in this movie, whose style is best described as contemporary Chinese neo-realism. Filmed on location in China's Hebei province with a cast of non-professional actors, "Not One Less" unfolds with the improvisatory style of such films as "The Bicycle Thief" and "Shoeshine," even if its central character doesn't always make a heart-rending heroine.

Wei Minzhi plays a 13-year-old girl hired to be a substitute teacher for a month in a school populated by children very nearly her own age. The teacher she's replacing (Gao Enman), who has been bedeviled by dropouts in recent months, is so skeptical about Minzhi's abilities that he makes her a wager: If every single student is still in school when he gets back, she gets 10 extra yuan in pay.

Minzhi makes a minimal effort to keep her charges in line until the day a mischievous student, Zhang Huike, is missing; it turns out that he's been sent to the city to find work in order to support his impoverished family. Determined to earn her bonus, Minzhi sets out to find him and bring him back, discovering along the way that she was more emotionally involved with the troublemaker than she thought.

"Not One Less" is leavened by the presence of a beguiling group of Chinese schoolchildren, including Zhang Huike, who exudes a toothy, genial charm. The same can't be said for Wei Minzhi, whose determination often looks like pigheadedness and whose concern for the children is marginal at best.

Still, "Not One Less" fulfills one of the chief functions of the movies, which is to show filmgoers worlds they would never otherwise see. As a poignant portrait of modern Chinese life, Zhang Yimou's film makes a lasting impact.

`Not One Less'

Starring Wei Minzhi, Zhang Huike, Tian Zhenda, Gao Enman

Directed by Zhang Yimou

Rated G

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Running time 106 minutes

Sun score **1/2

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