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Edko Columbia Tristar Films

Less Is More
Amateur actors shine in Zhang Yimou's Not One Less
By YISHANE LEE

Zhang Yimou's latest earned a Golden Lion at the 1999 Venice Film Festival, a feat insiders tagged as a consolation award for Zhang's tussles with Chinese authorities. Not that Not One Less doesn't deserve praise; it's just that you expect a lusher creation from the filmmaker behind Raise the Red Lantern and To Live.

The new film returns Zhang to the faux documentary style he explored in The Story of Qiu Ju. But this time there's no Gong Li glow. Instead we've got a posse of amateur child actors who turn in surprisingly natural performances. (Zhang didn't always tell them they were on camera.) Both docu-style films tell a similar story: the triumph of the disadvantaged.

 
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A teenage girl (Wei Mingzhi) is sent to be a substitute teacher for a month in rural China. Barely older than the kids themselves, she immediately distinguishes herself as a pigheaded autocrat whose only concern is that not one student drop out, or else she won't earn her pay. So when one starving family sends off their son (Zhang Huike) to earn money in the city, she makes it her mission to retrieve him.

Because we've seen how obstinate she is, it's not exactly heartwarming when the film arrives at the inevitable reunion, engineered through the help of a TV show. And since this is Zhang filming in China, you begin to wonder what the underlying message is: a kiss-up to government officials, as some cynics say, because the teacher's perseverance leads to success? A sly critique of Beijing's autocratic style, since the teacher stubbornly refuses to bend rules? A pronouncement that media is king because being on television nets positive results? Perhaps this is reading too much into the film. Better just to fix on any of the cute scruffy kids, wondering which might become the next Chow Yun-fat.

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