Yimou Zhang, the director of Raise the Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers, turns from cold opulence and bamboo wire-fu spectacle to make this teacher’s favorite movie about teaching, Not One Less (1999). A small rural school keeps losing students to work opportunities and sports recruiters. Teacher Gao is leaving for a time, and he instructs his thirteen-year-old substitute not to lose any more—not one less.
Of course, that is exactly what happens, and young Wei must travel to the city to fetch her wayward charge. Raising the money to do so provides her students with a living arithmetic problem—how many bricks does the class have to move to buy a bus ticket?—and a chance to literally broadcast their concerns to urban China.
While the film’s semi-documentary feel and use of amateurs lend charm, the ending—which directly addresses the audience via title cards that document the plight of rural education in China—has struck some as heavy-handed. But by the time we get to this PSA, Zhang has earned our attention: the Bicycle Thieves-like wandering in the city, searching for the lost child, is as touching as the growing solidarity of Wei’s class. She becomes a teacher, they become students. It’s as simple as the performances, and as profound as any of life’s milestones. I particularly appreciated the movie’s willingness to expose Mei’s weaknesses—and its brave assertion that our hearts should not be embarrassed to feel the rush of pity and hope.
Find Not One Less at Netflix here.