I like a filmmaker who walks you into a story. Some directors, rushing to get started, prefer to fly you in by helicopter–a popular choice for stories set in New York or Miami, where the camera can come skimming in over the water. Other filmmakers float you down on a crane, so you can survey the scene while a car pulls up to the suburban house, a train to the country station. Maybe you come into the picture by riding along with the characters (by rocket, if George Lucas is in charge); or maybe, if Spielberg is running things, the early shots reveal that you have no need to travel, because you were already inside the movie. You discover that your nose is somehow pressed against Liam Neeson’s torso as he’s getting dressed; or you realize that your eye is really the eye of Tom Hanks, who is watching how his hand shakes during the boat ride to Omaha Beach.
Nothing’s wrong with any of these ways of entering a movie–but if you want to feel the world wrap around you, the way to go is on foot, as Zhang Yimou does at the start of Not One Less.
Two figures, seen from behind, walk through farm country into a tiny village in China’s Hebei Province. Fields, hills, animals and people all share in the earth tones of the dusty road. Everything is muted, and everything’s in bad repair. When the pedestrians reach their goal–a one-story building, set in a gravel-surfaced yard–you see the plaster has chipped off the facade, exposing the bricks beneath. This is the village school. Its little desks, all in rows, are clean. But the classroom walls are cracked–and so, it seems, is the system that has brought Wei Minzhi here, to serve as a substitute teacher.
Now that you get a view from the front, you can see she’s 13 years old. Impossible, says the regular teacher. (He needs a month’s leave to care for his dying mother.) The only possibility, shoots back the mayor. Nobody else was willing to come out to the sticks, to such a poor place. You don’t like her? Don’t take a leave! While the two men carry on, the round-faced little girl stands in silence to one side, as if she hasn’t yet entered her own movie. Her eyes are blank; her posture, very like that of the school’s unpainted door, which no longer hangs flush in its frame. Is Wei Minzhi sullen, stupid, angry, stubborn, hurt, indifferent, frightened? All you know is that she’s waiting. She will turn out to be good at waiting.
Meanwhile, since she’s just standing around, you might take a moment to run through Zhang Yimou’s résumé. He is perhaps best known for two richly colored, immaculately shot melodramas about the sufferings of women in feudal China: Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern. But he’s also made his own versions of the western (Red Sorghum), the gangster movie (Shanghai Triad) and the ripped-from-today’s-headlines thriller (Operation Cougar). When a peculiarly Chinese genre took shape in the early nineties–the saga of recent history, as experienced by little people–he made one of those as well: To Live. A varied list–though a star seemed to unify it by her presence. All of these films featured Gong Li, an actress who is too strikingly beautiful and self-possessed to be entirely disguised, even when playing a pregnant, rural farmwife, as she did in The Story of Qiu Ju.
That picture represented Zhang Yimou’s first notable excursion out of the past (and the conventions of genre) and into the contemporary scene, which he observed in semidocumentary fashion. (Much of the film was shot with a hidden camera, so that ordinary citizens could unwittingly play themselves.) Later, in 1996, Zhang Yimou tried for an even more up-to-date effect in Keep Cool, in which the main characters (a middling businessman and a love-crazed slacker) were creatures of Beijing’s pumped-up, Westernized economy. But by then, Gong Li had said goodbye to Zhang Yimou, who seemed to flounder without her. In Keep Cool, he tried working in the nervy, improvisatory style of a Hong Kong movie. The effect wasn’t exhilarating, just frantic.