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Not One Less

Much is made of the deplorable state of the American public school system today. Too few computers and too many students per teacher are among the most popular criticisms. Our Western woes are put into perspective by Zhang Yimou latest release, "Not One Less," which addresses the state of education in his native China. Based on screenwriter Shi Xiangsheng's novel, "Not One Less" tells the simple tale of Wei Minzhi, a 13-year-old girl commandeered to teach a class of 28 students in the month-long absence of a teacher must tend to his ailing mother in another village.

"Not One Less" marks a departure for Zhang from dramatic examinations of China's long history in such films as "Raise the Red Lantern" (1991) and "To Live" (1994). The film is a fable of present-day China more in keeping with his 1992 film, "The Story Of Qiu Ju." But what sets "Not One Less" apart from his other work is the casting of all non-actors in the roles. Zhang has taken that notion one step further and assigned each cast member to play a role in the film that he or she has in real life. Wei Minzhi really is a 13-year-old student, Mayor Tian really is a mayor of a small village and the TV station manager really does manage a TV station.

By doing so Zhang sets up the film almost as a documentary through which he can examine everyday setbacks met by the rural school system. The teacher, Gao, leaves substitute Wei in a crumbling school building with just enough chalk to write each day's lessons. She must share her sleeping quarters with a number of students that convert their desks into bed pallets. Wei takes to her duties with determination, even if she's more determined too keep each and every student in class (and receive the extra 10 yuan Teacher Gao has promised her upon his return for doing so) than she is to actually teach anything. Wei bullies the students, who aren't much younger than her, by simply sitting outside the classroom door permitting no one to leave. Her efforts prove fruitless: First, one student is sought after by a specialized athletic school, and then Zhang Huilke, the class troublemaker, moves to the city in search of work to support his family.

Wei Minzhi handles her first role deftly, clearly demonstrating the sense of pride and willfulness that urges her to retrieve Zhang Huilke. Wei's tenacity is endearing, and one cannot help but root for her as she engages the students' help to raise the money for bus fare into the city by emptying their pockets, and when that fails by moving bricks at a local site. Wei inadvertently teaches them arithmetic and problem solving by calculating how many bricks each student will have to move for how many hours to earn her fare. But when the combined efforts of the students fail to meet the mark, they scrap that plan altogether and sneak Wei onto the bus.

What follows is a little implausible, as Wei abandons her students that she previously guarded with such resolve to seek out one lost sheep, but Zhang employs a nimble touch, balancing comic moments with those of Wei's desperation as blindly searches the city for Zhang Huilke. He is aided by a naturalistic cast that complements the story perfectly, lending the film authenticity. The resulting happy ending feels earned rather than contrived. Wei's success is heartwarming as she brings riches to the school and town that no one thought possible.

Zhang has crafted a sweet and winning film that relies on the simplicity of its story, photography and acting to tell what in essence is a public-service announcement. One can only hope that every school has a Teacher Wei at its helm.

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"Not One Less"

Wei Minzhi

Gao Enman

Zhang Huike

Sun Zhimei

Titan Zhenda

A SPC presentation. Director Zhang Yimou. Screenplay Shi Xiangsheng. Produeced by Zhao Yu. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.