Bad Education? Not From This Little Teacher

Director: Zhang Yimou

Chinese director Zhang Yimou my be better known for weaving opulent tapestry onscreen, beginning with Red Sorghum (1987) and climaxing with Raise The Red Lantern (1991). His most recent film following the same style was The House Of Flying Daggers (2004).

However, Not One Less, set in post-Communist China, is completely different. Its documentary-inspired style is reminiscent of Iranian films with its extensive coverage of the dusty Chinese village landscape. And as far as the story is concerned, its bitter-sweetness interspersed with moments of poignancy and innocent comic interludes is like revisiting Children Of Heaven.

Mei is a thirteen-year-old girl who has just finished primary school, and is not very good at her subjects. She is asked to fill in as a substitute for the village teacher Gao, who has to take a month off to go see his ailing mother. Mei, like most pre-adolescents, is least bothered about the job, but is quick to take it on for the fifty Yuan that she is promised. In fact, when one of the students, a fine runner, is selected to attend an Athletes School, Mei refuses to let her go, fearing4 that her salary may be cut if the number of students reduces.

Mei and her students don’t get along with each other at first – for them, she’s too young and is not as intimidating as Gao. And to her, they’re just a bunch of pesky kids on whom she shouldn’t be wasting her time, but the thought of the money spurs her on. She shows no interest other than writing a lesson on the blackboard for them to copy, and they grow increasingly cranky as she refuses to let them leave until late afternoon. Gradually, however, she earns the grudging acceptance of the class and learns to accept them too, and slowly begins to involve them in lessons and songs. Obviously, the classroom scenes make for the bulk of the comic parts of the film, with the children at their most natural and boisterous best.

One of the students is the exceedingly naughty Zhang Huike, who’s some sort of nemesis for Mei. He’s also the class bully and getting constantly reprimanded by her for his escapades. However, one morning Zhang is nowhere to be seen. Mei comes to know from the mayor that he has gone to the city to work to help his ailing widowed mother pay off some debts. Not wanting to lose another student, Mei enlists her class to help raise money for her trip to the city to seek out their classmate. They pool in their allowances and even move bricks to raise the cash, while the apathetic mayor refuses even to pay Mei her fifty Yuan in advance.

Two days after Zhang’s disappearance, Mei makes her way to the city despite the mayor’s protests, and this is where she realises that there are things beyond her realm of knowledge. As she desperately seeks out Zhang amidst the chaos, dust and noise of the city, Zhang is begging for food, unaware that he is being missed. Mei is forced to part with her money: a little to Zhang’s co-worker who accompanies her to the station to look for him, and the remaining to buy paper and ink to write ‘missing’ notices which she finally realises are useless as Zhang has been missing for three days.

Now completely penniless, Zhang clings to one last hope – a TV station where she was told she could broadcast a message. Naturally, she is not allowed in, and spends almost two days waiting until the sympathetic station manager decides to let her appear on a program that focuses on issues affecting modern China. Mei is introduced as a village teacher, and the dam finally breaks as she tearfully asks Zhang to return. As the episode is aired, Zhang, who has managed to find work washing dishes in an eatery, sees his teacher on his employer’s TV and breaks down.

All ends well with a happy student-teacher reunion and loads of donations from the kind city residents who see the TV show. As they make their way to the village, which gives them a hero’s welcome, Zhang vows to finish school and find a job so he can buy his young teacher some flowers. The remaining students cluster around Mei back in school as each takes out a bit of coloured chalk and lets new hope take shape on the blackboard in the form of various words: sky, water, diligence. Mei becomes the village heroine for her heroic stubbornness and single-minded devotion to her student.

The film is deeply moving with a heart-warming storyline, and should definitely rank among Yimou’s greats. The rural Chinese landscape is shown in all its rugged beauty and is well contrasted with the chaotic city crowds, concrete and traffic. The premise of the city-dwellers coming to the rescue of the villagers (yet again) seems like a kind of clichéd political statement, but that is only if you delve deep into it. Otherwise everything else is top-notch.

Not One Less is a wonderful tribute to the triumph of the human spirit against all odds. It is also a tribute to the oldest human relationship – that unbreakable bond between teacher and student.

One of the most powerful moments in the film is when village boy Zhang is asked by the TV host about his most lasting impression of the city. In all innocence, he says: “I had to beg for food. I’ll never forget that.”

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