Absolute classics

3rd December 2004 at 00:00

Triumph over adversity ****

Insight into the economically dynamic new China ****

Confronting child labour **

These days director Zhang Yimou is best known for his stunts and swordplay movies Hero and House of Flying Daggers. But viewers can change pace with Not One Less (Yi ge dou bu neng shao, 1999).

This is a glacially slow tale of rural education. Teacher Gao leaves an elementary school in a remote village for a month and is replaced by 13-year-old Wei Minzhi. Her main concern is wages, but Gao and the mayor doubt her suitability and continually defer payment. There are no overcrowded classes here. Many pupils leave to work in the cities. With one-fifth of the school already working, the authorities warn Wei to keep all the children - the "not one less" of the title - or lose her bonus.

What follows is a battle to win over awkward pupils, maintain classroom order and, in a poverty-stricken school, conserve the precious blackboard chalk. This may sound like the usual formula for a school movie, but these students don't have a pot to pee in, literally - they go behind the playground wall instead.

At first, they humiliate the teenage teacher, who is barely older than them, but by and by they warm to her and drop their unkind comparisons with the previous teacher. Then disaster strikes.

Zhang Huike, the charming class nuisance, has gone to work in the city to help repay family debts. So Wei must find him fast. She rallies the class to find the bus fare into the city, all the while dressing up the tasks as learning exercises. Her plan is a great success, and inspires her pupils to be independent learners.

Wei conceals her dubious maths skills as the class gets to grips with working out the cost of a round trip to fetch Zhang. (If this sounds familiar, don't worry - this isn't one of those schmaltzy "Let's put on a show" scenarios.) Eventually, a desperate urban search ensues, and is completed only when a nascent television network picks up the story and broadcasts a tearful message from Wei. Pupil and teacher are finally reunited, and the newly prosperous city folk have their consciences pricked into donating to the school.

The joy of this modern fairy tale is in the subtle, matter-of-fact way in which it is shot, drawing on a cast of amateurs to deliver its simple message of improvement and tenacity that sees Wei transformed from a selfish girl into a capable educator.

Graham Barnfield


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