To Her, With Love
So let's call Not One Less the first Iranian film by Zhang Yimou. Like so many films by Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, it's a game with mirrors: a fiction (written by Shi Xiangsheng) that takes on the immediacy of documentary, a documentary that shows you how real people would behave in fictive situations.
As in many of the best Iranian films, the situation involves not only children and education but also a noticeable shortage of resources, of which Wei Minzhi is herself a fine example. What can she teach her charges? Well, she knows a song, she explains to the regular teacher. Asked to demonstrate, she stumbles through the first three lines with appropriate hand gestures, then falls silent. Very well, the teacher says, what other songs does she know? She shrugs. That's her repertoire. The teacher sighs. All right: She can write a textbook lesson on the blackboard and have the students copy it. Here are twenty-six pieces of chalk--one per lesson, one lesson per day, just enough to last until he returns from his leave. Don't write the characters too large, because the chalk will run out. How big should the characters be? About the size of a donkey turd. Oh, and three of the girls will sleep with Wei Minzhi in her room. The boys should sleep outside her door, in the classroom.
So many things to count, when resources are scarce: the chalk, the live-in pupils, the student body as a whole. Wei Minzhi will be responsible for twenty-eight children, in the first through fourth grades. If all twenty-eight, not one less, are still in class when the teacher returns, he will personally pay her a 10 yuan bonus, above the 50 yuan she's supposed to earn. It's a handsome offer; he hasn't been paid in six months.
Not being a fool, Wei Minzhi sizes up her own chance of being paid and aims instead for the bonus. Then disaster strikes: The class troublemaker, Zhang Huike, a boy whose body weight is 30 percent grin, leaves for the city to search for work. His mother is deeply in debt; he can't remain in school. Suddenly, Wei Minzhi springs into action. Until this point, she has been a timeserver. Now, her bonus endangered, she finds many more things to count: the number of yuan required for bus fare to the city and back, the number of hours of manual labor needed to earn that sum, the number of cans of Coca-Cola she can afford to buy, after her pupils have worked for hours and want something to drink.
The plan to bring back Zhang Huike seems droll at first; plans do, when they're based on a plentiful lack of information and a shaky foundation in arithmetic. But though you may be amused by Wei Minzhi, you will find it hard to look down on her, when she's suddenly communicating so much energy. Even the look of the film changes, once she's discovered a purpose; objects take on more color. Not that the movie ever becomes bright: After Wei Minzhi enters the world of impoverished city children, she finds that countable things disappear quickly. Adults are peremptory, and other young girls can be even more money-hungry than she. And so she goes through a transformation. Though without the skill, Wei Minzhi develops the human concern of a good teacher.
I like a filmmaker who takes you lightly through such a story: walking you along at a brisk but comfortable pace and never letting your feet get stuck, whatever miseries may have soaked into the ground. Wei Minzhi turns out to be a heroine because she, like countless other people, makes herself keep going. And Zhang Yimou is heroic, too. In the heart of a fiction film, in a scene that involves a TV broadcast (and therefore doubles the fiction), he has shown how a moment of real human contact may break through the artifice of the moving image.
What's true within that scene is true of Not One Less as a whole. Run, don't walk, to see it.