It's always a pleasure to catch a new film by Zhang Yimou. I consider him one of the very best filmmakers working today. If you don't know what I'm talking about, see his masterpieces Raise the Red Lantern, Shanghai Triad or Ju Dou, among others. They all made a star out of Zhang's then-girlfriend, the amazing actress Gong Li, but now that the two have broken up and no longer work together, what is a Zhang Yimou film like? The answer: pretty good.
In Not One Less, he eschews his usual elegant style in favor of a rawer look (similar in feel to his earlier The Story of Qiu Ju). The set-up: in an impoverished village in rural China, the local schoolmaster must leave for a month, and the only replacement the government can supply is a 13-year-old girl, Wei Minzhi (played by Wei Minzhi - part of this movie's charm is that the cast is made up of non-professionals who all act under their real names and portray characters who share their real-life occupations). Teacher Wei does her best to corral her students, just trying to keep them in school for the month in hopes of getting a meager monetary bonus for her efforts. However, when the 11-year-old class clown (Zhang Huike) bolts for the big city to look for a job, Wei sets out to track him down and bring him back, enlisting the help of her cheerful students.
What follows is a very touching odyssey - and clear-eyed critique of a desperately poor modern China - as Wei tries to find the missing boy in an enormous city, meeting opposition at virtually every step from an array of pessimistic and unsympathetic adults. The film is much more light-hearted - even downright cuddly (the kids in this film are the cutest I've ever seen) - than Zhang Yimou's earlier tragedies, but one can't watch this without recalling Zhang's pointed opinions about (and harassment by) the Chinese government. Not One Less inarguably portrays a China so choked by bureaucracy that even ordinary citizens have lost their sense of compassion, replaced by a self-serving pettiness. That Wei persists in her search no matter how many times she is knocked down by those above her is, in Zhang's view, nothing less than epic heroism.
However, Wei's patience may outlast the audience's: the film's only downfall is its endless repetition of Wei's frustrating encounters. It will exhaust you! However, stay with it and you will be treated with a wonderful twist in the last 15 minutes that brings the story to an ironic, emotional and wholly satisfying conclusion. Serving as a reminder that the value of a great film is not measured by the 2 hours it's in front of your face but by the lifetime of memories it leaves you with.