Not One Less

China 1998

Reviewed by Philip Kemp


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Provincial China, the present. Teacher Gao, who runs a primary school in the village of Shuixian, needs a month's leave to tend his dying mother. The mayor finds a substitute, 13-year-old Wei Minzhi. Gao doubts Minzhi can do the job, but no one else is available. Already children are leaving; the former class of 40 is down to 28. Gao promises Minzhi a financial bonus if numbers are no lower when he returns.

Minzhi makes her pupils copy lessons from the blackboard while she keeps guard outside. Zhang Huike, a bright but disruptive boy, causes frequent trouble. Sports officials come to take away Ming Xinhong, a promising runner. One morning Zhang Huike fails to appear; his mother has sent him to the city to work.

Determined to bring Huike back, Minzhi enlists her pupils' help in raising money for the trip to the city. There, she spends her last funds on some fruitless notices. A passer-by suggests she try the television station for help, but Minzhi is refused admittance. Determined, she haunts the gates for a day and a half until the station manager hears about her and allows her to make an appeal for Huike on a current-affairs programme. The show is seen by the manageress of the café where Huike is working. Reunited, the two are taken back to Shuixian by a television crew. The school is inundated with gifts of money, and Huike writes "Teacher Wei" on the board.


Not One Less' director Zhang Yimou made his name with a run of lavish, highly coloured period melodramas starring his then partner Gong Li: Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, Shanghai Triad and the like. But midway through this sequence of opulent, historical films came The Story of Qiu Ju, a contemporary drama in realistic style, in which Gong Li drabbed herself down to play a peasant woman fighting for justice for her husband after he is assaulted by the village headman. With Not One Less, Zhang returns to the low-key realism of Qiu Ju. Once again a lone female from a peasant village travels to the city and through sheer persistence achieves her goal in the face of bureaucratic obstacles. But where the earlier film assigned the lead roles to professionals, using non-professionals in support, Not One Less is cast entirely from non-professionals, nearly all playing what they are in life: the village mayor is a real mayor, the stationery-store clerk works in a stationery store and so on.

This leads to occasional awkward moments: the mayor in particular has trouble with eyelines, not always looking at the person he's talking to (but presumably at Zhang for direction). In general, though, there's an appealing freshness about the performances, especially in the classroom scenes. Altogether the first half of the film, prior to Wei Minzhi's departure for the city (where she is determined to locate her ex-pupil Huike) works well, featuring a wealth of vivid detail. Teacher Gao, worried Minzhi will waste the poverty-stricken school's supply of chalk, tells her that words on the blackboard should be only "as big as a donkey's turd". Initially sullen and indifferent, Minzhi is increasingly engaged with her pupils as they work out the practical maths involved in raising her bus fare to the city or troop off on an expedition to the local brickworks to earn the money.

But on reaching the city, the film turns steadily more schematic and predictable. Shots of Minzhi and Huike separately wandering the streets, each gazing at food stalls, or of Minzhi asleep on the pavement as pedestrians stride past, are pure Victorian cliché. It's no surprise, then, when the equivalent of the kindly old gentleman - a stock figure in sentimental Victorian literature - shows up. Trying to enter the local television station, Minzhi is blocked by a jobsworth demanding her ID. But when the station manager finds out, he rebukes his employee, sits Minzhi down in his office with a bowl of food and puts her on television to broadcast her appeal. Occasional minor officials may be callously inflexible, but rest assured, those in charge are always ready to help.

Qiu Ju, made after Zhang had run into trouble with the authorities in Beijing, also pushed a message calculated to warm the hearts of the Chinese leadership. But Not One Less, being partly funded by a subsidiary of US-based Columbia Pictures, has two masters to please. So we not only get a clumsy scene where Minzhi and her class share Cokes at the village store ("Coke tastes good," they enthuse), but a feelgood ending that might embarrass Hollywood at its most shameless. Beaming peasants, kindly television crew, cartloads of coloured chalks with which the kids can write suitable ideograms ("Home - Happiness - Diligence") on the blackboard - and a sententious end-title telling us that, while poverty forces a million Chinese children each year to leave school, voluntary contributions have helped 15 per cent to return. All that's missing is the address we should send donations to.


Zhang Yimou
Zhao Yu
Shi Xiangsheng
Director of Photography
Hou Yong
Zhai Ru
Art Director
Cao Jiuping
San Bao
©People's Republic of China
Production Companies
A Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia presentation/a Guangxi Film Studios & Beijing New Picture Distribution Company production
Executive Producer
Zhang Weiping
Production Managers
Hu Xiaofeng
Zhang Zhenyan
Assistant Directors
Xie Dong
Ya Te
Tai Zuhui
Yu Ting
Script Consultant
Wang Bin
Kang Xiaotian
Set Master
Hu Zhongquan
Costume Designer
Dong Huamiao
Music Performed by
Asia Aiyue Orchestra
Wu Lala
Recording Engineer
Shen Jianqing
Sound Editors
Wang Dong
Lin Qian
Wei Minzhi
Wei Minzhi
Zhang Huike
Zhang Huike
Tian Zhenda
Mayor Tian
Gao Enman
teacher Gao
Sun Zhimei
Sun Zhimei
Feng Yuying
TV station receptionist
Li Fanfan
TV host
Zhang Yichang
Mr Zhang, instructor
Xu Zhanqing
brick factory owner
Liu Hanzhi
Zhang Huike's mother
Ma Guolin
bus station man
Wu Wanlu
TV station manager
Liu Ru
train station announcer
Wang Shulan
stationery store clerk
Fu Xinmin
TV station director
Bai Mei
manager, Juxin Restaurant
Zhang Mingshan
Jiao Jie
Rong Huimin
Sun Zhiwei
Ming Xinhong
Tian Xuewei
Li Mei
Li Lingyu
students of Shuiquan Primary School
Columbia Tristar Films (UK)
9,563 feet
106 minutes 15 seconds
In Colour
Original Chinese theatrical title
Yi Ge Dou Bu Neng Shao
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011