Thursday, February 22, 2007
31. Chinese filmmaker Yimou Zhang's "Yi ge dou bu neng shao (Not One Less)" (1999): A marvelous neo-realist Chinese film, ideal for family viewing
Long after De Sica made Bicycle thief and Fellini his La Strada, neo-realist traditions grab me like no other in cinema history. The Chinese film Not one less, made half a century after the Italian masterpieces, underlines several aspects of neo-realist traditions—non-actors can transform into great actors provided you have an intelligent script and a talented director, poverty attracts anyone with a conscience, the candid camera is a marvelous tool, and human values exist to be appreciated irrespective of national boundaries. It truly deserved the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival.
A reluctant substitute teacher taking on a job that would fetch a doubtful "50 yuan" from a village mayor with questionable priorities transforms into a national hero in less than a month as she strives hard to ensure the number of her students do not dwindle until the regular teacher returns. Her resolutions transform the economic state of the school, make her students into socially responsible "young adults" and teach a lesson to the wily mayor and a gatekeeper at the city TV station, who go by rules rather than by discretion.
The brilliance of the film is that the film hooks the audience as a thriller would until the film ends. Yet there is no sex, no violence, no beautiful face, no delightful music or engaging camera angles—only reactions caught by candid camera (at least most of the time).
The most poignant comment was the young student's comment "I loved the city but it made me beg for food" For a contemporary Chinese film made under tight censorship—the film's director Yimou Zhang (also referred to as Zhang Yimou) seems to offer layers of comment beyond the obvious story line. Did Teacher Wei do what she did for the sake of money or as a responsible teacher? Are you likely to forget propagandist songs but recall simple songs on family values? Is individual greatness (teacher Wei) appreciated more than group actions (school as a group, nation's need for good athletes overriding permission of the parents of potential athletes)? Is the richness of rural lifestyles discounted by rising urban materialism? Does it require an individual's actions to underline the demands of the rural poor? These are hidden questions for each viewer to answer.
I have only seen one other film of director Yimou Zhang and that's Red Sorghum. Not one less towers over Red Sorghum in every department of film-making.
I saw this Chinese film on an Indian TV channel. I only wish more such international films get shown widely on TV throughout the world. It would raise the bar of what constitutes good cinema to many who currently have little idea of good cinema except those made in their own countries. Recent mainland Chinese films like Peacock and Not one less have established their world class credentials.
P.S. I was more than amused to find Ford and Coca-Cola financed the film in part, which is probably why the school kids in a remote Chinese village know about Coke and relish rationed drops of the liquid. Who was pulling whose leg here???