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The Boston Phoenix Class Act

Zhang Yimou's age of innocence

By Peter Keough

MARCH 13, 2000:  Grade school is tough everywhere: in this country a six-year-old shoots a classmate; in rural China a 10-year-old drops out to labor in the big city to support an invalid mother. Where's the innocence? After making some of the most rapturous films ever -- Raise the Red Lantern, Shanghai Triad -- about the loss of that problematic state, Zhang Yimou has found it again in a ramshackle one-room schoolhouse in a benighted village three and a half hours outside of bustling Beijing.

With camera crew in tow and a neo-realist tradition ranging from Roberto Rossellini to Abbas Kiarostami in mind, Zhang set up in the backwater of Shuiquanto tell a simple tale about childhood's initiation into social responsibility and society's responsibility to childhood. The result, Not One Less, sheds his usual lush cinematography, intricate period settings, gorgeous costumes, and stunning imagery (not to mention Gong Li) to uncover the essence of the human condition and the movie camera's capacity for recording it.

Perhaps that's overstating the case for a children's story about a 13-year-old girl who's enlisted as substitute teacher for a classroom full of urchins not much younger than herself, a movie for which the terms "heartwarming" and "charming" come readily from the critic's lexicon. Wei Minzhi (played by herself; the cast is made up entirely of amateurs playing themselves) is a tough cookie; she might look like a raggedy scrap when the shifty village mayor (Tian Zhenda) presents her to Gao (Gao Enman), the grizzled regular teacher she'll be replacing for a month while he tends his ailing mother. Neither are her credentials imposing: she can sing, almost, a song about Mao and write lessons on the blackboard.

But she's got a stubborn streak and a resourcefulness that proves a learning experience for everyone. To begin with, she's sharp enough to insist on her money up front -- 50 yuan -- and she chases down the departing Gao and mayor until she gets some satisfaction. She'll be paid when he returns, Gao promises, plus 10 yuan extra if all 28 students -- not one less -- are still enrolled upon his return.

At first that condition seems easy to fulfill: she writes a lesson on the board, tells the class to copy it, then shuts the door and guards it. That method doesn't help when an out-of-town track coach recruits one of her students for a training program -- though when she runs doggedly after the car taking the girl away, the mayor notes that Minzhi might also be a good candidate for the team.

Then there's the diabolical Zhang Huike. A grinning imp, he defies Minzhi's authority and torments her and the class with his obnoxious pranks -- one of which, in a poignant scene, causes some of the school's precious chalk to be destroyed. He's still missed, though, when he doesn't show up one day for class -- he's gone to the city to make money for his impoverished family.

That, ostensibly, is the social problem that Not One Less was made to illustrate -- the "one million" grade-school students (the number stated in the film's epilogue, which was written to placate the Chinese critics, though the actual figure is closer to 10 million) who drop out of school every year because of poverty. A good cause to promote, no doubt, but more compelling is how the heroine not only adapts to her situation but transcends it -- and how Zhang retains the innocence of naturalistic filmmaking while commenting cannily on it.

When the mayor refuses to do anything about the missing boy, Minzhi and the class calculate ways of getting to the city and back in order to rescue him. The problem inspires a series of math lessons -- no more rote lessons to be copied -- and some backbreaking field trips to earn money for bus fare. All for nought -- in one of Less's many ironies, Minzhi ends up boarding the bus through a subterfuge and promptly getting tossed off, whereupon she starts hitching. Her wiles, though, are no match for the Westernized glitz and alienation of the city. Only her perseverance is. Waiting for a day and a half outside the gate of a TV station, she becomes a media star and returns home triumphant.

Or does she? Although the old village school was elementary in every sense of the word -- time was told by the progress of sunlight up a beam -- and though the villagers seem at first a gruff and unappealing lot, the prosperity of city life that Minzhi ushers in seems a dubious improvement. Despite being dazzled by the plenty around him, Huike recalls for a TV interviewer that what he'll remember about city life was having to beg for food. And when she's confronted by a chatterbox talk-show host and a camera lens, Minzhi's response is a silent tear. But it's enough to get them their 15 minutes of fame and more boxes of colored chalk than they know what to do with. As these Chinese characters write their favorite Chinese characters on the blackboard, you wonder how long such stubborn innocence can prevail, and then you appreciate all the more Zhang's accomplishment in recording it.

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