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“Not One Less”

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This movie is not new, but it is one you might have missed.

If you read the blurb, it goes something like this: “A thirteen year old substitute teacher in a small Chinese village is charged with keeping all of her students enrolled in school until the regular teacher returns.”

A simple story, it’s not a typical Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern”) film at all, nor does Zhang commit any typical sins audiences have come to expect from such a story. The harsh realities of poverty in China, both rural and urban, are not glossed over, but neither are they Spielberged out of the park.

“What can you do?” old teacher Gao asks his barely pubescent substitute.

Over the course of the movie, we learn quite a bit about just what Wei Minzhi can do.

It is also one of two movies I can think of that the whole family really can enjoy. (The other one is Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven).

You can watch this movie with your kids, your spouse, your sister the movie snob, her angry teenaged twins, your most disapproving covered-in-cloth maiden aunt and all four of your grandparents, if you’re lucky enough to have them, and nobody will fall asleep or be bored or offended, and everybody will enjoy talking about it afterwards.

The mayor has promised Teacher Wei a bonus if she can manage to keep all the children enrolled in the school while the regular teacher takes a month of family leave, but when class-clown and bad boy Zhang Huike leaves the village to look for work to help his ailing widowed mother, what Teacher Wei does has nothing to do with 10 extra yuan.

The film is not perfect. In a montage scene, Zhang lets a couple of duplicate frames slip in, or come to think of it, maybe that’s intentional. Artistically, what stands out most is the director’s skill with the story. He does not belabor it, he just holds it up to the light and pets it gently for you.

I watched Not One Less having read absolutely nothing about it, and I was bowled over by the superb acting. Wow, I thought, somebody hooked Zhang up with some exceptional unknown actors.

What I didn’t know: There are no actors in the movie.

All the parts are played by the actual people who lived the story.

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