Browsing my video shelf last night, I came across a movie I have watched six times now, and it still baffles me why I enjoy it. Reviewers are mostly unconflicted: …consistently clear-eyed and convincing, Portland Oregonian; …the sorrows are so heart-rending, its many comic moments so laugh-out-loud human, L.A. Weekly; …an uplifting movie about the rewards of perseverance and community, N.Y. Daily News; …a warmth and sweetness that is especially hard to resist, L.A. Times; …has a slow-burning emotional power, Philadelphia Enquirer.
The conflict for me is that although Not One Less is a compelling story set in modern China, it is told from the point-of-view of a screechy, whining girl placed as a substitute teacher for a mixed-age class whose pupils are barely older than she is. This girl, Wei Minzhi, is clearly unsuited for the job, and is only taking it to earn the few pennies it pays. The real teacher makes her an offer: she will receive a bonus only if every student he leaves with her is still at school when he returns, and “not one less.”
But despite the bratty behavior of nearly every child at the school (matched only by the unbelievably manipulative Wei Minzhi herself), and the incredible poverty of the rural schoolhouse, the story carries you along. When, as the teacher knew would happen eventually, one of the boys runs off to seek his fortune in the city, Wei Minzhi stubbonly follows after him to bring him back. The irony is that both rural children, teacher and pupil, are totally out of their depth in the busy urban setting.
But her persistence, the sheer dogged stubborn core of iron in this unlikeable rural substitute teacher, wins in the end. The question I’ve never been able to answer is why this film is so enjoyable. Perhaps it is just the yen we all have to be rewarded for the struggle in our own lives, to be able to get every single thing that is our due, and not one less.
Director Yimou Zhang is renowned for his iconoclastic Chinese films such as Raise the Red Lantern, and as the director of Jet Li movies like Hero.
Not One Less is subtitled in English, as is Raise the Red Lantern.