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.
But here’s Wei Minzhi, still waiting to begin her work. How to characterize the film she’s in, Zhang Yimou’s first since Keep Cool? The simplicity of the cinematography (which faithfully picks up the surface texture of things, though not much of their color), the lively naturalism of the performances (as in the mayor’s comic sputterings)–most of all, the air of intransigence about the young girl–all put you in mind of The Story of Qiu Ju. And sure enough, like the furiously determined heroine of that film, Wei Minzhi will take it into her head to go to the city.
Yet there’s a difference: The character “Wei Minzhi” is played not by Gong Li (or any rough equivalent) but by a 13-year-old girl whose real name is Wei Minzhi. The “mayor” who is pretending to foist her off on the school is not a professional actor but Tian Zhenda, a village mayor; the kids awaiting instruction really are students in a village school in Hebei Province. When Wei Minzhi gets to Jiangjiakou City, the TV station manager she encounters will be played by an actual TV station manager; the store clerk by a store clerk; the restaurant owner by a restaurant owner.
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.