Yi ge dou bu neng shao (Not One Less)

Directed by Zhang Yimou
Starring: Wei Minzhi, Zhang Huike, Tian Zhenda, Gao Enman, Li Fanfan.
MPAA Rating: G

Review by Matt Heffernan
March 29, 2000

Zhang Yimou has been one of the most successful Chinese directors -- outside of the action genre, that is. His films like Raise the Red Lantern and Shanghai Triad have exposed the world to a thriving source of art in the Communist mainland. His latest work to hit American shores is a definite departure from those highly produced Li Gong vehicles. Not One Less is a dramatic film based on a true story, but it uses the actual subjects to play themselves.

In a remote rural village, Gao Enman teaches all the children at the primary school in a single classroom. When he has to leave town for a month, a substitute is hired: 13-year-old Wei Minzhi, who has yet to attend high school. Given no other choice, Gao leaves his students in her young hands with two instructions: use only one piece of chalk per day, and make sure every student is accounted for -- not one less.

Unfortuantely, these tasks become immediately difficult. On the first day, the box of chalk is spilled, and several of the alloted pieces are crushed. One student is sent to a special school for her athletic ability, at the insistence of Mayor Tian Zhenda. Minzhi is powerless to stop that, but she soon loses another student. The mischievous Zhang Huike is sent to the city for work to help support his ill mother. Despite the disruptions he caused in the classroom, Minzhi goes on a selfless quest to retrieve him by herself.

Zhang's choice of using real people and locations for this film lends it an almost documentary feel, especially with the children, who are very natural -- unlike the odd creatures in Snow Day. Young Wei Minzhi has to support the entire film, her performance really coming alive once she makes it to the big city. Much of the film is mechanical, like footage cut from a documentary, but the story becomes very engrossing in these city scenes.

The earlier part of the film drifts from one vignette to another, all featuring the schoolchildren in charming situations. The "cute" factor almost reaches the level of The Cider House Rules, but it never comes off as contrived. It is hard to determine how much of these scenes were carefully controlled by Zhang. They appear to be improvised, which might be the product of brilliant filmmaking, or just plain luck.

Ultimately, Not One Less is good family entertainment, granted that nobody in your family minds reading subtitles. It earns a solid "G" rating, without resorting to any crudity or condescension. Of course, that means your local cineplex wants nothing to do with it.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Yi ge dou bu neng shao (1999)

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Not One Less (1999) - English subtitles -- VHS
Not One Less (1999) -- DVD

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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan