For another look at a society that's making the uneasy transition from tradition to modernity, check out Zhang Yimou's Not One Less, which is set in China's Hebei Province. The village of Shuiquan is only a 3Þ-hour drive from Beijing, but it might as well be on the moon, so little does it participate in China's recent economic boom. When the movie opens, the local grade-school teacher is about to leave for a month, and the only replacement that can be found is 13-year-old Wei Minzhi, who makes up for her lack of knowledge and experience with her sheer determination to hold the class together. That ultimately involves a trip to the nearby metropolis to retrieve a student--the class cut-up--who's been sent there to earn some money for his struggling family. If this is starting to sound like a movie only Mao could love, I should point out that Zhang undercuts the feel-good ending with a feel-bad beginning and middle. Based on actual events, Not One Less manages to serve as both an indictment and a reprieve.
As he did in The Story Of Qiu Ju, Zhang employs tactics developed by neo-realist filmmakers, be it the Italians in the '50s or the Iranians in the '90s, to tell his story as simply and directly as possible. All the actors are nonprofessional, and the camera does its best to impersonate a fly on the wall. Even so, there are moments when Zhang seems to have consulted with a Hollywood script doctor--e.g., when Wei sends out an emotional plea for the student's return on the local TV station and the student tearfully heeds the call. I enjoyed Not One Less, but it's hard not to see the movie as a step back in Zhang's years-long thrust-and-parry with Chinese authorities. (He recently told the Western press that censorship is worse than ever.) In the next-to-last scene, he literally wraps the bus that's bringing the kids back to Shuiquan in a big red shiny bow. A tribute to the implacable drive of China's youth, the movie could be called Where There's a Will, There's a Wei, but can the government harness that implacable drive?