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Not One Less
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The kids are all right: Wi Minzhi (right) dispenses wisdom in Not One Less.
Chinese: 一個都不能少
Year: 1999  
Director: Zhang Yimou  
  Producer: Zhao Yu, Zhang Weiping
  Cast: Wei Minzhi, Zhang Huike, Tian Zhenda, Gao Enman, Sun Zhimei, Feng Yuying, Li Fanfan, Zhang Yichang, Liu Hanzhi, Ma Guolin, Wu Wanlu, Liu Ru, Wang Shulan, Fu Xinmin, Bai Mei
  The Skinny: The harsh realities of China's rural educational system and the perils of substitute teaching are just some of the issues put forth in this eye-opening, inspirational movie from critically acclaimed director Zhang Yimou.
Review by Calvin McMillin:

Award-winning director Zhang Yimou tugs at the heartstrings once again with Not One Less, a poignant tale of one young girl's plucky determination in the face of overwhelming odds. Without being heavy-handed, the film provides a startling snapshot of rural Chinese life and shows in graphic fashion how poverty can negatively affect the lives of children. But despite these high social aims, the film doesn't come across like an in-your-face exposé. There's a real story here as well.

When the elderly Teacher Gao (Gao Enman) has to leave his tiny rural village to take care of to his sick mother, the town mayor (Tian Zhenda) hires a headstrong thirteen-year-old girl (Wei Minzhi) to temporarily fill the position. Despite reservations about her young age (she's not much older than the students she'll be teaching), Gao agrees to the proposition, but leaves her with a warning: lose just one of the students, and you don't get a bonus. Since she hasn't been paid upfront, Minzhi readily accepts Gao's terms, but has no idea what she's gotten herself into.

Unfortunately, Minzhi's woeful inexperience with children almost proves to be her undoing. Untrained as a teacher, the young woman does little more than scribble the daily lessons on the board and yell at her students to copy them, spending most of her time outside guarding the front door. This curious approach to education leaves all twenty-eight of her students alone and unsupervised in a small room—a surefire recipe for disaster.

Things get worse when a feisty ten-year old student (Zhang Huike) leaves the village for the big city in the hopes of finding work to help care for his debt-ridden family. Once Minzhi learns of Huike's departure, she resolves to reclaim him, no matter the cost. Using the classroom as a forum for discussion, Minzhi unintentionally (and comically) creates an atmosphere conducive to the learning process, as many of the children compete to figure out how much money it will take for Minzhi to go to the city and bring Huike back. But even once the cash is raised, Minzhi's troubles are far from over as she steps into the vast labyrinth of urban China to search for one lost young boy.

Thankfully, Not One Less doesn't stoop to tell a clichéd story of an idealistic young teacher who comes to "enlighten" a mischievous group of poor rural kids. As a protagonist, Minzhi is refreshingly flawed, stubborn, and ill-equipped to deal with her present situation. By the same token, the children are in no way stereotypical "bad kids." Instead, we have normal, rambunctious children who run amok only in reaction the teacher's obvious inexperience.

The initial scenes between the substitute and her class play out with a palpable sense of realism; the emotions that register in Minzhi's face ring true as she begins to lose the power struggle with the children almost from the very beginning. But once the adversarial relationship between Minzhi and her students is set aside, the film really hits its stride. The classroom sequences with our heroine unconsciously "teaching" the children as they try to raise money for her bus fare rank as some of the film's more memorable moments.

While telling this rather straightforward story, director Zhang Yimou provides the audience with a glimpse into a world where poverty, child labor, and homelessness are a normal part of everyday life. One simply does what he can to survive. And although the film ends on a glorious high note, the director smartly undercuts the celebration—ever so briefly—with a rather bleak sentiment from the missing boy. Neither overly sentimental nor crassly manipulative, Not One Less elicits real tears and laughter in its simple, inspirational, yet truly provocative story. All in all, it's a great little film. (Calvin McMillin, 2003)

Notes: • Not one of the performers in Not One Less is a trained actor. In a sense, each performer is playing a role similar to the "role" he or she has in real life: thirteen-year-old Wei Minzhi plays a thirteen-year-old character named Wei Minzhi, the film's mayor is in actuality, a real village mayor, etc.
Awards: 1999 European Film Awards
• Nomination - Screen International Award (Zhang Yimou)
1999 Sao Paulo International Film Festival
• Winner - Audience Award for Best Feature (Zhang Yimou)
1999 Venice Film Festival
• Winner - Golden Lion Award (Zhang Yimou)
• Winner - Lanterna Magica Prize (Zhang Yimou)
• Winner - Sergio Trasatti Award (Zhang Yimou)
• Winner - UNICEF Awards (Zhang Yimou)
2000 Young Artist Awards
• Best International Film
• Best Performance in an International Film (Wei Minzhi)
Availability: DVD (USA)
Region 1 NTSC
Columbia Tri-Star
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Removable English Subtitles

image courtesy of Sony Classics Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen