FORGET THE SEX, colors, and romance of Zhang Yimou's past historical dramas like Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou. Gong Li is gone, and we have to move on. So, too, has Zhang, whose Not One Less will remind viewers of 1992's The Story of Qiu Ju in its contemporary story of an implacably stubborn peasant girl. Played memorably by Wei Minzhi (a nonprofessional, like everyone else in the cast), this 13-year-old heroine is an underqualified substitute teacher put in charge of an unruly-but-lovable mob of rural students—kind of like the Dead End Kids with subtitles. They're cute but abjectly poor. Wei's only in it for the money, but suddenly feels the burden of responsibility when left alone with her pupils for a month. "I can't do anything," she despairs.
NOT ONE LESS
directed by Zhang Yimou
runs February 25-March 2 at Varsity
Impish 10-year-old Zhang Huike initially torments Wei with his misbehavior, then abruptly disappears to the distant city. Wei's 10 yuan bonus depends on retaining "not one less" than her 28 students, so she sets out to retrieve him from the teeming metropolis.
This slim plot amounts to nothing less than a collision between country and city, rural poverty and urban bustle. Zhang films the countryside's mud and flies in stark, dusty yellows, while the city is rendered in a smoggy blue-gray. In between, Wei is briefly framed in golden light while purposefully striding through a tunnel, but Zhang has conspicuously left behind the exquisite color-coded compositions of his earlier work. In their place are scenes of hardship and privation—both in Wei's village and the uncaring city. "Stop causing trouble," she's told in town, while other strangers occasionally take pity on her and forlorn Zhang Huike.
Like Diogenes and his lantern, Wei is indefatigably looking for help in an impersonal city that seems too busy to care for the fate of one lost child. She's the spirit of old China amid the new, uncomprehending of its changes yet resolutely focused on her mission. Accordingly, Zhang's deus ex machina conclusion to his story can be seen as both a concession to his government censors and a sort of sly satire of its new market-oriented value system. And when young Zhang Huike is asked about his most lasting impression of the city, his answer says it all.
That haunting reply lingers beyond the pat ending of Not One Less, no matter what neat postscript director Zhang was compelled to provide for the social problems he raises. The artistic trade-off for Zhang depicting the present—as opposed to freely addressing the "corrupt" pre-Revolutionary past—may mean less intrigue and passion, but his humanity is undiminished.