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The Substitute: Wei Minzhi plays a part-time teacher hired by a small village's mayor (Tian Zhenda, left) to find a wayward student.

Pupil Wrangler

In Zhang Yimou's 'Not One Less,' the country is not like a garden

By Richard von Busack

ACCORDING TO A RECENT paper, the exchange rate between the Chinese yuan and the American dollar is 8.25 to 1. Thus, the Chinese film Not One Less is about a young girl's effort to earn less than $10 American in exchange for a month's worth of work. The odd title comes from a deal 13-year-old Wei (Wei Minzhi) makes with her village mayor.

He needs a substitute elementary school teacher. She gets the job, because no one can be found. This may be because the word's gotten out in the village that the current teacher hasn't been paid in half a year.

If all the students--and not one less--are at their desks when the regular teacher returns in a month, Wei will receive not just the agreed-upon sum of 50 yuan, but also a 10 yuan bonus.

In pursuit of this insignificant sum, Wei ends up traveling to an unnamed nearby city to retrieve one of her pupils. Naturally, the missing student is the prankiest, naughtiest pupil, Zhang (Zhang Huike), a kid who calls himself "The King of Troublemakers." What follows is something like a Chinese version of the parable of the Good Shepherd, with Wei striving, searching and living on the streets until she finds the lost child.

Director Zhang Yimou is best known here for his costume melodramas starring Gong Li, such as Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou. The first half of Not One Less is a dry, pragmatic depiction of the barrenness of a small town, acted out by a cast of nonprofessionals.

Wei, apparently a girl without much imagination, takes the job of substitute teacher because she had no idea what it entails. (What kind of straits the girl was in before she took the job is something Yimou leaves to us to guess. Maybe it says enough that Wei's parents are never out looking for this 13-year-old girl.) Wei's job is more like herding than teaching, but she does pass on some basic writing and arithmetic to the unruly but adorable kids, using a carefully rationed stash of chalk on the schoolroom's chalkboard.

To date, the height of irony in the history of Chinese cinema is the scene of Wei teaching the children to sing the anthem "Our Country Is Like a Garden" in the middle of this baked-mud hamlet. The Barstow-like country around the town of Shuixian in Hebei Province, where Not One Less was filmed, seems to support only one industry: brick-making. Brick-making, but not brick-laying; the two-roomed school is a shambling pile just waiting for the next strong wind to collapse it.

How Yimou got this utterly unadorned vision of scarcity past the Chinese censors is anyone's guess. The film is what they used to call "a powerful indictment" of shortages in the Chinese countryside. It is also a lesson about what happens to rural people when they are packed into the cities. (Wei might as well be a foreigner; no one understands her accent in the town.)

I'm troubled by the ending, a real they-win-the-lottery-type finale. The apple-cheeked Wei could be a great heroine for any Western girls old enough to read the subtitles, though. Wei's artless deadpan keeps the story tart. It's apparent that the character Wei approaches her journey to the crowded city the same way that she approaches being a teacher--she really doesn't have any idea what it will be like, and this helps her, strengthening her stubbornness.

Wei is a heroine, yes, but the idea of "heroism" hasn't ever crossed her mind. Not One Less is well worth the price of admission--which calculates to just about the sum of money Wei works so hard to get.

Not One Less (G; 106 min.), directed by Zhang Yimou, written by Xiangsheng Shi, photographed by Yong Hou and starring Wei Minzhi and Zhang Huike, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose and the Park in Menlo Park.

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From the March 16-22, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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