Not One Less
1999
Dir: Zhang Yimou
As we enter the final phase of our tribute to Zhang Yimou, we save three of his finest films for last - 'Not One Less', 'The Road Home' and 'Hero'.

'Not One Less' is a simple story of a 13-year old substitute teacher in rural China, who must embark on a quest to bring back a runaway student.

Yimou's relationship with the Chinese authorities has sometimes been rocky - his first films were not approved by the government.

'Not One Less' - Yimou's ninth film - marks the first time he had directed a film with the full support of the government. Educational reform was a big issue in the 1990s (and still is). Many rural children received little or no education, and the drop-out rate was considerable.
So a film promoting rural education was welcomed by the government.
But if the government thought that Yimou was going to roll over to their demands, it was mistaken.
Yimou's film fulfils one half of the bargain he had made with the government. It does indeed show the problems of rural education and the urban/rural divide. However, traditionally, propaganda films would show the government stepping in to solve the problem and improve the lives of the people. Yimou's film does not show that. It shows the local bureaucrats as uncaring, the system failing, and the alienation of the poor.

Whilst the film does not contain the lush cinematography, vivid use of colors, and epic vision that we might expect from Yimou's films, it nevertheless contains some of his trademark themes - a strong, stubborn central female character who will not surrender - an individual struggling against an unbending society - the tyranny of power - a belief that however bleak a situation, kindness can prevail.

The casting of the film is extraordinary, in that it was cast entirely from non-actors from rural China. The mayor was played by a rural mayor, the teacher was played by a rural teacher, the restaurant owner was a real-life restaurant owner and the central characters were all students cast from rural schools.

Paul Spurrier