Starring: Wei Minzhi, Zhang Huike, Tian Zhenda
Director: Zhang Yimou
Running Time: 102 mins
Not One Less is a Chinese film about a teenage girl who is called up to teach the class of a rural village while their teacher is away. Under directions to make sure that all of the students remain in school upon the teacher’s return, she goes to incredible lengths to keep her class all together.
Many films try to offer a sobering and hard-hitting account of real-world hardships, all the while trying to make you smile with a heartfelt story that restores your faith in humanity. That’s exactly what Not One Less is going for, and for the most part, it succeeds rather well, with a thoroughly likable and often sweet story that’s juxtaposed with some genuinely heavy real-world drama. It unfortunately fails to reveal its true depth and power until a little too late on, with more of the story dedicated to an often repetitive structure that’s never quite as moving, but the fact remains that Not One Less is both an enjoyable and enthralling watch.
In similar fashion to many of director Zhang Yimou’s films through the 1990s, Not One Less looks beyond the growing metropolises of China to the countryside, with the small-scale nature of community and traditional values taking on the main role in his stories. This film, while set in present day (1999), is highly reminiscent of many of Zhang’s most intimate and moving stories, most notably the likes of The Road Home, and even Red Sorghum.
In that, the sweet and pleasant intimacy of a film that deals with a small rural community is as present as any in Not One Less, and it’s what makes the film such a thoroughly likable and engrossing watch from the start. With the story of a girl who is recruited to effectively control the class of the local village for a week or so, the film gets to the crux of how a small community functions nicely, elaborating on the growing bonds between the children as they grow over the course of a dramatic week in their lives.
It’s a little similar to the story of the children in Turtles Can Fly, and although this film may not be quite as bleak in its setting or ultimate turn of events, there’s a thoroughly pleasant yet fascinatingly grounded portrayal of the lives of children in small rural communities, with their innocent adventures cleverly set against the backdrop of real-world social problems.
So, that part of the story really made me smile, but it’s the film’s second half where the real thematic depth comes into play. Upon losing one of the students in her class, young Wei Minzhi travels to the big city to find him, but comes across obstacle after obstacle, leaving her more and more desperate in her search for the young boy.
It’s an almost identical premise to The Story Of Qiu Ju, except instead of being a critique on bureaucracy and government inefficiency, Not One Less takes aim at the reliance of modern society on money and wealth, such to the point that a hard-working and earnest young girl finds herself on the streets while looking for a lost student of hers, simply because she hasn’t a penny to spare.
However, while that theme is a fascinating one, and proves genuinely moving in the film’s final ten minutes or so, it’s one that it just a little too far from the limelight throughout this film. Similarly problematic to The Story Of Qiu Ju, the structure of the second act – that is our main character struggling as she comes up against obstacle after obstacle in her quest – is really repetitive and unfortunately a little dull.
The film’s more direct approach to its key theme over the final ten minutes is far more moving, in comparison to a second act that sees a rather drawn-out and underwhelming depiction of a young girl going around the streets in search of her lost student, with little in the way of strong, dramatic character development or further thematic depth.
In effect, the whole second act is a very slow and long-winded emphasis of the film’s key theme, and while it does ultimately tug at the heartstrings a little, it fails to really hit home well for far too long, making for a rather frustrating watch.
With that said, I still really quite enjoyed Not One Less. A sweet, pleasant and intimate drama at first, and then an intriguing and ultimately moving depiction of poverty, the film is an engaging watch throughout, although its rather repetitive and long-winded second act takes away from its real emotional power, unfortunately leaving its strongest emotion until far too late on, which is why I’m giving it a 7.5 overall.