Film Commentary [10-4-00]
Quest of a Substitute Teacher - - Not One Less
Yi ne dou neng shao
Genre: Drama
Grade = B+
Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles
Available at Hollywood Video

In a remote mountain village in rural China, the local teacher Gao is an old man who has to take a month off to take care of his ill mother. The mayor has found a substitute teacher for him - a thirteen year-old girl named Wei. Needless to say, Teacher Gao is not pleased but faced with the fact that they canít get anyone to come this far out into the boonies he ends up showing her what to do for the month, namely, have the children copy lessons from their one, ragged lesson book from the blackboard, but most of all, she must be very, very careful with the chalk. They can only afford one piece of chalk a day.

Before he leaves Teacher Gao tells her that the school has lost quite a few children who, due to the poverty of their families, have left to find work. He tells Wei that she must keep all the students together in school until he gets back - not one less, or she will not be paid. The film is her struggle to accomplish this task.

Teacher Wei settles in and begins to struggle to control and teach students who are not much younger that she is. She is also not that much more educated than they are, especially in arithmetic. The major crisis of the film occurs when the class troublemaker, eleven-year-old Zhang Huike, leaves unannounced for the city so he can earn money for his destitute and indebted family. Wei does not want to break her promise to Teacher Gao and also wants to get paid. She gets the kids in the class involved in schemes to get money for bus fare to the city. All fail and she eventually walks and hitchhikes. On arrival in the city she discovers she hasnít a clue of how to find him and everyone she meets rebuffs her attempts to get their aid.

Directed by Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou), this is a genuinely interesting film for its portrayal of the poverty of rural China. Much more interesting than Raise the Red Lantern with is repeated ad nausea on Bravo. The school itself is one room and decrepit. Teacher Wei has to share her small room and office with a short bed with three boarding students. When one scene when Teacher Wei is fighting with Zhang, they knock over the chalk and step on it, the crushed remains are gathered up to be used because they have no other and it must be rationed. The desks appear to be made of scrap lumber. The fact that the film hasnít been banned by the Communist government like most of the rest of the good Chinese films we get over here probably tells you that the reality of the situation out in the China sticks is even worse than it is portrayed here. At least none of the children appeared to be actually starving.

The director makes good use of the children to express his point about their poverty. Particularly telling is the scene where the 26 thirsty children share two cans of Coke after having spent half the day moving bricks at the local brickyard to try to get money for the bus tickets. Yimou also effectively shows the naivety of the small town Teacher Wei in the big city as well as her determination and bravery in her quest to get her student back in the face of the indifference of the city folk. Contrast shown between the lives of those in the rural area with the present urban environment is surprising and potent.

The screenplay is surprisingly open and honest and told with a straightforward style. The cinematography also effectively utilizes rural and urban settings in the storytelling technique's simplicity. The performance of Minzhi Wei as Teacher Wei is especially dramatic when her character freezes up like a deer in a carís headlights with stage fright when she is interviewed for TV about her search. This is surprising considering that none of the characters in film were portrayed by professional actors. All were local people. The mayor was a real mayor and Teacher Goa a real teacher. Of course, all the school kids were real school kids.

This is one of the few mainland Chinese films to make it over to the US that deals with present day China. Most of the rest deal with China in a historical perspective. This is a refreshing film well worth the effort to find and enjoy.

Once again, hats off to Hollywood Video for being the only major video chain that actively distributes foreign and independent films.

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