The school as microcosm of society is part of a long cinematic tradition, from the little anarchists of Zéro de Conduite to the proto-fascists of Mädchen in Uniform to the ’60s rebels of If . . . . Well, the nation is one big classroom in Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less, a disarming parable about who’s in charge in contemporary China.
Zhang, best known for a string of lush historical melodramas starring Gong Li, employs a far dustier style for this story of a 13-year-old substitute teacher in a rural village school. Wei Minzhi (played by a schoolgirl of the same name) is recruited for this unpopular job by the local mayor when the regular teacher leaves town for a month to tend his ailing mother.
She’s no matinee idol, but she has a certain sulky, recalcitrant charm, as she stands guard over her slightly younger students. She’s also not much of a pedagogue. “Copy the lesson!” she barks to her 28 squirmers, then storms outside and draws with a stick in dirt. Is it any wonder that when the leader abdicates responsibility, trouble soon follows? Zhang Huike, a 10-year-old with an iron will and a winning smirk, is one of trouble’s prime movers. But after he disappears to the city to earn money to pay back his family’s debts, class and teacher rally, and the real learning begins.
With Not One Less, Zhang Yimou has fashioned what feels like an uncannily accurate portrait of a culture where Communist ideology has vanished like a brief dream, as traditional community values clash with the burgeoning cult of money. (Adding to the film’s aura of transparency, almost all the actors are nonprofessionals who are mayors, teachers, students, et cetera in real life.) In the nameless city where Wei Minzhi follows Zhang Huike, and where she is nearly as lost as he is, acts of charity are rare, and most people are preoccupied with maintaining their position or making their next yuan. The bureaucrats she encounters would flourish under any system, but the new wealth is accompanied by new forms of poverty. When she stares at a television camera in a mute appeal to find her student, her despair at losing him is mixed with profound alienation in the face of technology. The film’s occasional dips into sentimental cuteness and its too-pat ending can’t cancel the gap that yawns ever wider between rural and urban society.
A few months ago, an upscale New York furniture emporium was selling little wooden desks from a rural school in China. Somebody had wagered that their patina of age and fragility would appeal to cash-flushed sensibilities. Perhaps our taste for the exquisite poverty revealed in national cinemas like that of Iran and China is just another symptom of our decadence. But in those places, a battle is still being waged; here it’s already been won.