It’s hard to imagine a more local film for the fledgling Columbia Pictures Film Prod. Asia banner to start off world distribution, or a more auspicious choice, than director Zhang Yimou’s “Not One Less.” Pic was a popular winner of the Golden Lion in Venice, where critics and auds concurred on its merits. Defending the right of poor Chinese kids from the countryside to a basic education, the story is simple, moving and universal. The film was produced with the help of government financing, which may account for the arbitrary happy ending (which will prove a plus for distribs). Yet at the same time, it is a pretty shocking documentary on extreme poverty and child labor in today’s China. With the right handling from Sony Pictures in the U.S. and Columbia in Asia and Europe, it should reach wide arthouse auds.
Setting aside the exotic, luxurious colors of “Ju Dou” and “Raise the Red Lantern,” Zhang Yimou trains his unassuming camera on a poor village where teacher Gao has to ration chalk in a tumbledown one-room schoolhouse. When he has to go away for a month, the only replacement the village chief can find is Wei Minzhi, a gawky 13-year-old girl who can barely read and write herself. The opening sequences achieve an astonishing balance between comedy (as when Gao tests the girl’s hilariously faulty memory of a school song) and pathos, which abounds visually. At bedtime, several students convert desks into a rough bed and sleep in the school, illustrating the dire poverty of their families. A third of the class, we are told, already has dropped out of school to go to work.
Though no genius, Wei Minzhi has one unshakable virtue: She is stubborn as a mule. She makes it clear she is there strictly for the money, and to earn an extra 10 yuan she undertakes to keep all 28 pupils in school until Gao returns. For her, this means guarding the door.
One day the class mischief-maker Zhang Huike disappears, sent to work by his invalid mother. With her pupils as allies, Wei Minzhi hatches childish schemes to earn the money for a bus ticket to go to the city and look for him. Again Zhang steers the film’s tone into comic territory, playing on the girl’s iron-willed determination and the previously unmotivated schoolkids’ eagerness to help.
All lightness fades, however, during Wei Minzhi’s trip to the city. The adults are callously indifferent to her plight, just as they are to the other underage kids on the street, working or begging for bread. At one point it seems that Zhang Huike is destined to become a street urchin, and Wei Minzhi’s search for him — a needle in a haystack — appears doomed. Her irresistible force meets an immovable object in the bureaucratic receptionist at a TV station, where she goes to advertise for her missing pupil. But the station manager is unexpectedly understanding, perhaps because he senses the media value of a good human interest story.
The film’s weak point is its undeniable sentimental side, gratingly pointed up in brief snatches of saccharine music. But even the obvious emotion of a tearful scene at the TV station, certainly aimed at large audiences, is modulated by the humor that immediately precedes it, making it more palatable to sophisticated viewers.
An entirely non-pro cast basically playing themselves lends pic the kind of authenticity familiar from Iranian cinema, clearly an influence here. Known as the “peasant director” because of his many films set in the Chinese countryside, Zhang Yimou affectionately brings out the immense strength and courage of these ragged rural folk with masterful tragi-comedy. When Wei Minzhi, collecting pennies for bus fare, demands that her class empty its pockets, one voice pipes up, “I don’t have pockets!”
Hou Yong’s camerawork has a natural, documentary feel that the director experimented with in “The Story of Qiu Ju,” the film that won him a Golden Lion in 1992. It is the perfect counterpoint to novelist/scripter Shi Xiangsheng’s story that artfully swings between humor and drama until the final emotional punch.
Obvious plugs for sponsors Coca-Cola and Sony are so overdone they will get a laugh in the West.