The Chinese director Zhang Yimou has a rare gift for dramatizing highly theatrical stories in highly naturalistic settings. His greatest film, The Story of Qiu Ju, was a carefully prepared fable, and yet it had the free-form look of something caught on the sly as a part of life’s ongoing bustle. His new movie, Not One Less, has something of the same quality, but it’s simpler and even more emotionally affecting. The mayor of a small village in western China replaces the local schoolteacher, away for a month, with a 13-year-old substitute barely older than her unruly students. Wei Minzhi – played by a real-life middle-school student using her own name – has a wide-open face with flushed cheeks. It takes a while to warm up to her, because she seems all too well adapted to her role as martinet. Her drive is a little frightening in someone so unformed, but she becomes a true heroine when a student, Zhang Huike (also his real name), is forced into the city to earn money for his family. Minzhi, who has been promised a bonus by the mayor if all her students remain enrolled, connives her way into the city to bring back Huike, a student with a naughty urchin’s grin who has given her nothing but trouble.
The village scenes and the city scenes have a mysterious connectedness. Together they seem to take in the whole range of quotidian life. Minzhi’s search for Huike, seen at various points in the story alone and scavenging for food, becomes her passion; we can see how all her pride and devotion and willfulness are wrapped up in this little boy’s plight. Seemingly unlocatable in the urban sprawl, Huike has no idea he is being searched for. When Minzhi, hoping to spread the word, manages to get herself interviewed on a television news program, she clams up at first, but then her concern and sorrow break through and Huike, seeing the spectacle on TV, cries along with her. It’s one of the most improbably satisfying love scenes on film, but Zhang Yimou doesn’t milk the moment. He’s a stringent sentimentalist, and so, when our emotions well up, we don’t feel like we’re being played for fools. His feeling for these children is deep, and he honors them with the full measure of his respect. They have the mettle to survive poverty, and it shows in their brazen, lyrical faces.