Not One Less (1999)
Director: Zhang Yimou
Writer: Zhang Yimou
Cinematographer: Hou Yong
by Jon Cvack
This is my second film from Zhang Yimou, having first checked out Raise the Red Lantern, which is one of most beautiful Chinese films I’ve ever seen. In Not One Less, Yimou turns the camera to a small impoverished school in rural China, having absolutely no money to operate, in which chalk is the most valuable asset, with no piece, not even a crumb, too small to use its very last grain. The film was exploring the byproduct of China’s cultural revolution from the 1960s and 1970s where over 160 million students had lost out on or received inadequate education. Soon nine-year compulsory education was required by the government, but it was a dismal program, soon lessening to only seven years.
The story focuses on a thirteen year old girl, Wei Minzhi (Minzhi Wei), who has no formal training or even high school education. She substitutes for Teacher Gao (Enman Gao) who is going away on business, and if she avoids losing one kid, will receive a 10 yuan bonus. As with any new-teacher-in-the-crumbling-school-film (i.e., Lean on Me, Dangerous Minds, etc.) the students walk all over her. Minzhi Wei was such an incredible casting decision, whose gentle and timid nature, combined with a passive face, make us question whether she’ll accomplish anything. She just doesn’t seem to have the temperament or the discipline, especially as she’s not much older or wiser - or taller - than most of her students.
When the school’s most mischievous student Zhang (Zhang Huike) takes off for the city in order to go find work to help with his parent’s debts, Wei petitions the city to help pay for her bus ticket to go find him. But with the city dead broke this is out of the question, and thus Wei recruits the students to try and scrape together as much of the money as possible. One of the jobs they find is manually moving tens of thousands of bricks into a silo, using the little math she knows and helping the students to determine how long and how many they would need to move in order to reach their quota. With the brick owner reluctant to pay much given that they broke most of the bricks, they scrape together less than 10 yuan and Wei takes off for the city and discovers that the people Zhang was working with lost him, leaving him wandering through the city streets alone.
Wei decides to spend the entirety of her remaining money on some ink, a pen, and some paper in order to place up ads across town. In a brilliant shot, we see a bunch of sharpies in the background, but the shop owner convinces Wei to spend all of her money on 100 sheets of paper, a brush, and old fashioned ink. Wei then heads to a bus depot, writing out Zhang’s description by hand, going all night, refilling the bottle with water in order to get to the very last drop. When she wakes up the next day a bypasser explains that she hasn’t placed any contact information on the notices, rendering them useless as no one is going to try and look up some random school name in order to try and get in touch.
Like Zhang, Wei then takes off to the streets, completely broke, taking whatever food is left over at restaurants. She sleeps on the streets and the fliers end up blowing away during the night, swept up by the city workers, leaving her with nothing.
Knowing that television might be her only hope, she decides to wait outside the entrance, asking every single person who enters or leaves if they know the station manager. Eventually she gets in touch with the man, asking him to make an announcement about the missing Zhang. After 36 hours it finally works, and she’s put on air, and in the film’s most powerful scene, overwrought with nerves, breaks down in tears asking the country to find Zhang, who’s now working as a part time dishwasher at a restaurant. The two are then reunited, taken back to the school, along with thousands of pieces of chalk dedicated by the news station amongst a truckload of other school materials. The kids then take turns writing just a single character on the board - as even with thousands of pieces of chalk they know not to waste it; except for Zhang who requests the students draw two characters on the chalkboard. They each write “Teacher Wei” on the board.
Like Raise the Red Lantern, or reminding me of the Dardennes Brothers, I’m blown away by Yimou’s ability to take incredibly simple scenarios and tap right into the core of what makes them universal. Did Wei actually care about Zhang, or was she more determined to get the 10 yuan bonus for keeping all the students? We’re never really certain. I think it’s safe to say she came around, as evident by the tears streaming down her face, never concerned about her own safety, but only for his; as being a teacher, it is her responsibility, money or no money. Regardless of the education system, this is something shared by all. We want our children to have the best opportunities available, and tugs at the heart strings in knowing that some just do not have the same resources as other more affluent countries, or even communities. To think the United States provides 12 years of free public education is a right that’s difficult to imagine living without. It seems so ingrained in our culture; a inalienable right. And still within certain communities, as property taxes pay for the education, it’s easy to see that more affluent counties are able to provide far more to their students than lower class ones. This isn’t an overtly political film so much as a celebration of the student and the teacher, who when stripped away of everything, can only depend on their reciprocal relationship - for the student to teach the teacher and for the teacher to care for and guide the student, no matter the nuisance. Yet still, Yimou portrays a world that is completely removed and, at times, difficult to understand for most Western Countries; the idea that chalk is so precious that every grain must be used. It’s not heavy, it’s not sentimental, it’s just a film that shows a world and connects it to our own.
BELOW: The importance of chalk
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