In such acclaimed period pieces as "Raise the Red Lantern," "Red Sorghum" and "Shanghai Triad," Chinese director Zhang Yimou filled the screen with gorgeous images that bled with appealing color schemes. All were boosted by the entrancing work of Gong Li, the filmmaker's former leading lady both on the screen and off.
"Not One Less," Yimou's first film since 1996's poorly received "Keep Cool," boasts neither Li nor that lush cinematography. Instead, we're treated to documentary-style camera work, untrained actors, a rambling, unhurried structure and an unpretentious little story that's tinged with a moral about the generous hearts of the Chinese people. Despite its didacticism, the concoction works nicely enough. But the lackluster drama isn't nearly as compelling as its filmmaker imagines it to be.
Taking his cue from "Children of Heaven" and other recent Iranian films, Yimou, toys with the divide between fiction and reality. He places his story among the very young and within an educational setting: Wei Minzhi, a 13-year-old student played by a girl of the same name (an actress who possesses no previous experience in front of the camera), has been sent to the rural Shuiquan Primary School to spend a month substituting for Teacher Gao (Gao Enman), who has been called away to care for his ailing mother. Gao instructs his replacement how to make the best use of 26 pieces of chalk, which are carefully doled out in one of many scenes that hint at the extreme poverty and scarcity that face those Chinese who haven't fled the country for the city.
Barely taller than some of her 28 young charges, Wei is told to keep her classroom busy copying lessons from the blackboard and singing the one song she knows about Chairman Mao. The children are to be released when the sun hits a particular spot on a pole or when the weather is inclement. The 50 yuan promised by Mayor Tian (Tian Zhenda, a mayor in real life as well) may or may not be paid, but Teacher Gao himself has promised to bestow upon the substitute a 10-yuan bonus if she's able to keep her class intact. (From that conceit comes the film's title). Ten students, we learn, have left the school in recent months; as we're told during the end credits, one million dirt-poor Chinese children are forced to drop out of school every year.
Thankfully, "Not One Less" isn't one of those warm and fuzzy movies (a la the abhorrent "Dangerous Minds") that posits an outsider of a teacher as the inspiration/savior for a roomful of misfits, who in turn impart valuable life lessons to their instructor. Wei, whose credentials extend only to graduating from primary school, mostly limits her teaching to barring the door, thus keeping the kids from fleeing. Later, when she's really inspired, she takes it to the next level, keeping attendance records and working out equations that may or may not be mathematically correct.
The disappearance of Zhang (Zhang Huike), an impish young troublemaker, gives Teacher Wei and her class a unifying goal. But when they work together to raise funds that will send her on a rescue mission to the big city, "Not One Less" takes a frustrating turn. The young woman spends lots of screen time hanging around at a train station, a television studio and other locales, waiting for someone to help her find Zhang. And we spend a lot of time watching her do so.
Like his heroine's quest, Yimou's warm-hearted movie is an admirable but less-than-gripping effort. Raise the red lantern again -- but not nearly as high this time.