February 20, 2000 [Not One Less]

In Not One Less, the 13-year-old substitute, wanting only her measly pay, completely lost and unwilling, uncertain, and afraid, is left to fend for herself for a month with only a reluctant mayor and 26 pieces of chalk to depend on.  The last thing she wants to do is teach--and so she simply corrals the students as best she can in the classroom and hopes she can gain her bonus by keeping all her rural students in school, as the teacher had instructed her: "not one less" than he had when he left.

But the instructive irony of the movie is that, in failing that one command--in losing one student to a sports camp, another to hoped-for work in the city--she becomes as good a teacher as any silent-comedy series of misfortunes could dream up.  She decides to follow the city-bound student, but needs bus fare; and the attempt to carry enough bricks at the foundry to afford the ticket results in math lessons so complex the entire class has to join forces and learn mightily; and it is her failure to carry enough bricks (added to all the other failures) that marks her success--her heroism--as she transforms herself from a poverty-stricken kid among kids to one of the best--O.K., at least tenacious--teachers I've ever seen.  

The round globes of tears that fall from her eyes as she considers her failures moves everyone, and by the end her students have all the chalk and hope they need, despite their poverty--and despite the Chinese rural-school problems the film highlights, its finale maybe a bit too preachy--but it's something worth preaching, as the credits roll and the little hands pick up brightly colored chalk to write figures for their "real" teacher--but also for their substitute, as much a child as they, and as much a teacher as anyone could want--and, the credits inform us, all of them real: students and teachers, mayors and TV station managers, secretaries and restaurant owners--dedicated amateurs building a movie with the director, Yimou Zhang, whose Red Sorghum and Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern have shown us China and the Chinese at their worst and best, but always with some sign that hope may not be rewarded, but it remains necessary.  So who am I to complain that the movie ends with a public service announcement? Who am I to deny those kids their chalk?


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