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Tuesday, July 18, 2000

'NOT ONE LESS'

Lesson from the school of hard knocks


A decade ago Western critics fell in love with the films of Zhang Yimou, for reasons entirely understandable. In "Red Sorghum" (1987), "Ju Dou" (1990) and "Raise the Red Lantern" (1997), he gave them a prerevolutionary China that may have been poor, oppressed and backward, but was also gorgeously colored and glamorously exotic, with the incomparable Gong Li supplying most of the glamour. While aspiring to high cinematic art, his films satisfied certain Western stereotypes.

But the very things that won him praise in the West earned him censure from those in China and elsewhere, who accused him of tailoring his films to Western specifications, while denigrating his own country and people.

This criticism was unfair, just as it was unfair to accuse Kurosawa of pandering to Western tastes just because his films happened to be so successful with Western audiences, but it contained a grain of truth. For all his talent, Zhang was producing films that might have been stamped "made for export."

"Not One Less," Zhang's 1999 film about the plight of children in rural China, is a complete reversal from the cinema that first brought him international acclaim. First, there is no Gong Li, nor any professional actors for that matter. All of the "stars," beginning with the 13-year-old substitute teacher who appears in nearly every scene, are locally recruited amateurs who are essentially playing themselves.

Second, instead of a semimythic past, the film is set in the all-too-real present, in a rural village that may be a day's bus ride from the urbanized, Westernized China of the new millennium, but is part of a preindustrial peasant culture in which poverty and illiteracy are common, and in which millions of children are cast adrift, like so many abandoned orphans in a Dickens novel.

Zhang films this culture much as he filmed it in "The Story of Qi Ju," his 1992 comic fable on the obtuseness of the Chinese bureaucracy and the way one woman (the hugely pregnant Gong Li in her most deliberately unglamorous mode) stubbornly battles it. Though laugh-out-loud funny in places, the film is less entertainment than documentary essay, with a clearness of vision and perfection of execution that penetrate to the core of childhood, in all its fragility, tenacity, intensity and loneliness. Zhang's camera may make even the run-down village school redolent with atmosphere, but his perspective, like that of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, is always that of the child.

The one at the film's center is Minzhi (Wei Minzhi), the aforementioned 13-year-old, a stern-faced, red-cheeked trainee who is assigned to take the place of the grizzled village teacher for a month while he is away caring for his dying mother. Wisely, she demands her 50 yuan payment up front.

The teacher tells her that he will pay her on his return -- and add a 10 yuan bonus if all of his 28 pupils are still there. They have been dropping out to help their families and if the numbers decrease much more the government might cut the village's educational subsidy. Minzhi agrees and the teacher trundles away in a cart attached to an asthmatic tractor.

Minzhi's strategy for coping with her charges is simple: She writes the lesson on the board (while being careful to conserve the one piece of chalk allotted per day) and tells them to copy it, then exits the classroom and guards the door to see that no one escapes. This teaching method is hardly satisfactory to her students, some of whom are barely old enough to read and write. The worst, however, is Huike, a grinning bundle of mischief who openly defies her and, in one early scuffle, grinds most of the precious chalk to powder with his heel.

Nonetheless, Minzhi remains determined to earn her bonus and when Huike disappears from the village to find work in the city so he can send money to his sick mother, Minzhi decides to find him. She considers various schemes for raising the bus fare. One is to cart bricks at a local brickyard and, as she and her students figure out how long and hard they will have to work, they learn real math and she becomes a real teacher.

Her biggest test, however, comes when, after many tribulations, she arrives alone in the city and realizes that her chances of running across the boy in this human sea are next to nil. She hits on the idea of placing a missing persons notice on a local TV station, but is rebuffed by the cranky female receptionist, the kind of pocket autocrat who delights in grinding people's faces in the rules. Disappointed but undiscouraged, Minzhi stands outside the gate and asks every man who goes in or out if he is the station manager. Her patience is eventually rewarded, and she becomes an unlikely media star.

There is neither a false note nor, more amazingly, a hint of amateurishness in any of this. Though occasionally resorting to documentary trickery, such as a hidden camera at the TV station gate, Zhang shoots most of his scenes as if he were making a straight dramatic film. While using a script (credited to Xiangsheng Shi), he achieves the illusion of absolute verisimilitude. Everything, including the long, tedious wait at the gate, seems to happen in real time, in real life. A Hollywood director would have cut for speed, but he would have missed much of the comedy and pathos of Minzhi's quest, the strength and purity of her spirit.

Enough to say that I have seldom cried tears so hot in a movie theater -- or felt that a film better earned them. And all it took was one smile.

Note: See "Not One Less" even if your Japanese subtitle reading skills aren't perfect. The dialogue is, for the most part, simple, and often simply unnecessary.

"Not One Less" (Japanese title: "Ano Ko wo Sagashite") is playing at Le Cinema in Shibuya's Bunkamura.


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