To Miss With Love
Zhang Yimou Makes a Comedy of Futility
There is, in modern China, a strong tradition of exile. In the latter years of Mao Zedong, it was common for a political leader, having suffered a reversal of fortune, to be sent out to the countryside to reconnect with the common people. The late Deng Xiaoping did it twice, before ascending to the chairmanship himself.
So it was, evidently, for director Zhang Yimou, after his own personal and professional reversal. From his 1987 debut, Red Sorghum, on, Zhang had worked exclusively with actress Gong Li, his leading lady and eventually his wife. With Gong, he developed a distinctly gorgeous and affecting movie-star cinema, built around her gorgeous and affecting presence.
Then, after 1995's Shanghai Triad, the couple split up. And now, with Not One Less, Zhang has taken his filmmaking skills out to the hinterlands, among the masses. The movie is populated entirely by nonprofessonal actors, recruited from the general public. Clerks play clerks, bureaucrats play bureaucrats, schoolchildren play schoolchildren. Zhang's cast is unbeautiful (though not ugly; he couldn't film ugly if he tried), but their performances are flawlessly natural.
The plot amounts to a rural Chinese take on the teacher-in-a-tough-school genre. In a remote, dusty, and backwards village, the instructor at the wretched one-room elementary school is called away to visit his ailing mother. To fill in, the local authorities send a 13-year-old girl named Wei Minzhi (played by a 13-year-old girl named Wei Minzhi). The substitute -- a child herself, skinny and reticent, with flushed cheeks and an overbite -- has not even been to high school, and her teaching supplies consist of one piece of chalk per day. Overwhelmed, she spends her time sitting on the doorstep and brooding, while the children run riot inside.
In exchange for doing this for a month, Wei has been promised 50 yuan (though no one seems inclined to actually pay it). And because enrollment has already dwindled from 40 students to 28, the departing teacher offers her a 10-yuan bonus if she can manage to keep the class intact till he returns -- all 28 students, not one less. Wei takes this titular instruction literally and mercenarily to heart: When a government track coach shows up to enroll a child sprinter in a national sports academy, she tries to hide the student from opportunity.
But gradually, Wei's duties tug at her. And the situation changes entirely when fourth-grader Zhang Huike (Zhang Huike, a fourth-grader), the class cutup, fails to show up for school. The little boy, Wei learns, has gone off to the city to get a job, to earn money for his family. Suddenly, subtly, the teacher's financial incentive is transformed into a moral purpose: She is responsible for Zhang Huike; she must find him and bring him back where he belongs.
The class rallies to the cause, struggling through arithmetic to figure out how much money she needs to make the trip, laboring adorably in a brick factory to raise bus fare. Quickly, the cost approaches and surpasses the 10-yuan bonus, but Wei never stops to reconsider. Practicality is beside the point; she is being niu, stubborn, a peculiarly Chinese virtue that is one of the director's favorite themes.
And her mission requires a niu person, indeed. Wei's poverty and ignorance make getting to the city almost impossible. Once she gets there, this tiny anonymous girl, the obstacles just keep getting bigger. Nobody knows where Zhang Huike is; nobody cares. Wei's first gambit for finding him fails, as does the second, as does the third. Long after an American filmmaker would have relented, Zhang denies his characters relief through mercy or coincidence.
This is not the thundering, life-and-death drama of Zhang's previous films. The dialogue is brisk and funny (even funnier, I'm assured, in the Chinese); the acting is note-perfect in capturing human awkwardness and absurdity. But if Not One Less is a comedy, it's a comedy of futility, an unrelenting vision of how huge and indifferent the world is and how small we are in it. The script eventually does end on a happy note, albeit with a whiff of satire. That ending, though, comes off as an afterthought. What sticks is the grinding sense of defeat -- and with it, above it, the little teacher's implacable defiance.