Not One Less (Yi ge dou bu neng shao)

China (1999) Dir. Zhang Yimou

One of the biggest problems facing many schoolchildren in the world today is being too poor to afford many of the basics needed for their education, something which is shared by the schools themselves thanks to governments starving them of funding. But this isn’t just an urban problem; spare a thought for rural schools with even less to offer their students.

In the remote impoverished rural village in the Republic of China, Teacher Gao is the lone educator at the derelict school, which has such paltry funding that even chalk is considered precious and used sparingly. When Gao is forced to leave for a month while he tends to his sick mother, he is dismayed to find his replacement is 13 year-old Wei Minzhi, sent from a neighbouring village purely for the money.

Because Wei is barely older than the pupils are, she is given two tasks: write out text from books and make the students copy them, and don’t let any of the pupils leave the school, as too many have already gone to find work to feed their families. Wei sticks to this resolutely until class troublemaker Zhang Huike takes off the city, forcing Wei to follow Huike to the city and bring him home.

Today, Zhang Yimou is known for his lavish historical costume dramas and whimsical wu xia films but long before this, Yimou was China’s foremost chronicler of less fortunate lives in his country, with trenchant but beguiling social dramas, set in times past and present. Not One Less is based on the story A Sun In The Sky by Shi Xiangsheng, yet despite being 20 years-old still tells a tale sadly prevalent to today’s world.

Yimou employs a very neo-realist feel to this film but to make the lines between fact and fiction even blurrier than usual, the cast are made up of non-actors effectively portraying themselves, i.e. – kids are real school kids, teachers are real teachers, receptionist is a real receptionist and so on. Not only is the result startling real and enchantingly natural but this lack of artifice makes the whole story doubly shameful.

First, we question how a 13 year-old could ever realistically be a substitute teacher but in Asia, it is well known children are set to work and given responsibilities from an early age. But the village is so poor maybe this was all they could afford. Teacher Gao hasn’t been paid for six months whilst orphaned kids sleep in the sole office in the back of the only classroom at the decrepit school, along with Gao, and now Wei.

Students are leaving the school purely because their parents are in debt and sending their children out to work is the only way to earn money. Gao has already lost ten pupils and doesn’t want to lose any more, promising Wei a 10-Yuan bonus on top of her 50-Yuan salary (which the mayor can’t afford to pay). Wei sticks to her guns when a scout from a training school comes for one athletic girl, eventually told Gao had approved it.

At this point, Wei has yet to ingratiate herself with the class, especially Zhang Huike, a cheeky little rascal without a father and a sick mother with debts up to her eyeballs. Ideally, Wei would be glad to see the back of Huike by she made a promise to Gao and decides going to the city to find Huike and bring him back is the only option.

Two major things happen as a result of this scenario – first, Wei and the remaining class start to bond as they work together to raise the money to by a bus ticket to the city; they even start to apply themselves to using maths in working out their fortunes, though often short on accuracy. The important thing is everyone is united in this endeavour and this sense of purpose gives them all a sense of hope in themselves.

Unfortunately, the second is the shocking selfishness and lack of empathy from the city people to this country hick, not even trying to understand or appreciate how out of her depth Wei is. This doesn’t apply to everyone but unfortunately to the ones most able to help Wei out. A lot of it is snobbery, but most of it is jobsworths unwilling to use their common sense to bend the rules and help the girl out.

Yimou was forced to work with Chinese censors to ensure he didn’t portray rural China as too poor, though it is hard to show it as anything but. The film closes with a factoid revealing one million children quit schools in rural communities through poverty, though it’s allegedly far more than that. The denouement is positive and uplifting but tarnished by knowing external donations of money and basic equipment keeps rural schools alive.

Elsewhere, the respect for authority is under scrutiny, offering two different perspectives – from the adults in the village finding themselves outsmarted by the kids, to those in the city with minor responsibilities playing lord and master. Yet, Wei shines as a beacon of persistence, albeit an obstinate one, circumventing this pompous bureaucracy through her own dogged resolve and guile.

Such surreptitious digs at communist China were probably missed by the censors, countered by the use of state TV to bring about a positive resolve to Wei’s situation, but the reality is Wei comes off as totally sympathetic as the downtrodden country girl in a world of self-important prigs.

It is practically impossible not to be moved by Not One Less. Yimou keeps it very simple so there are no distractions whilst the cast are simply magnificent, mostly because they aren’t really acting. Then the story, designed to upset and provoke, is so direct and uncomplicated its resonance is universally felt. Yimou may have made some modern visual masterworks, but this film is among his most affecting in giving hope to the little person.