Not One Less

Working with nonprofessionals who play characters much like themselves, director Zhang Yimou recounts the adventures of a 13-year-old girl assigned to work as a substitute teacher at a provincial primary school while the usual teacher spends time with his ailing mother. Promised payment if none of the students defect, the girl is flummoxed when an unruly student leaves for the city, sent by his mother to cover family debts, and after many struggles she finds a way of traveling to the city to find him. Considering how many cliches of capitalist propaganda we’re offered daily, I’m inclined to tolerate the relatively few cliches of communist propaganda we encounter in movies, and the first half of this one held my interest and sympathy with its glimpses of Chinese rural schooling. I was especially interested in its ambiguous treatment of the young heroine’s motives, which may be more selfish than communal, until the script tried to make us forget this was ever an issue. Ultimately this isn’t a worthy successor to either The Bicycle Thief or, much further down the scale, The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), Zhang’s previous government-sanctioned ode to a female peasant who persists in trying to get the government’s attention. Its resolution reeks of phoniness and self-congratulation, even if some of the narrative strands leading up to it are fairly absorbing. Screenwriter Shi Xiangsheng adapted his own novel, There Is a Sun in the Sky. 106 min. (JR)

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