Reviving the spirit of Italian neo-realism, which always sought to dramatize real life in the streets, and employing the methods of documentary, whose practitioners don't care to disturb anything in those streets, Not One Less at first seems a peculiar hybrid of a film -- especially for a director whose early films tended toward opulence. But after absorbing it, you may conclude, as I did, that Zhang's work has really been moving all along into a new form of naturalism that's touched with quiet poetry.
Working from a novel by Shi Xiangsheng, he tells the deceptively plain story of an impassive thirteen-year-old who is ordered by the local mayor to temporarily oversee her poor mountain village's one-room elementary school when the regular teacher is called away to tend to his dying mother. The girl copes glumly with her chores, which consist mainly of copying lessons, counting sticks of chalk and chasing stragglers. But then she undertakes a life-changing search for a runaway student in the city. That's about all, in terms of plot. The elements are basic, the country settings bleak, the conflicts simple. Everyone in the movie, including the mayor and the children, is a nonactor cast from life. But trust Zhang to once more elevate humble raw material into powerful drama that reveals the human condition and irritates the authorities.
Zhang's Ju Dou, released in 1989, was banned in China because wary censors saw its depiction of a young peasant woman's forced marriage to an old, cruel factory owner in the 1920s as a thinly veiled criticism of the current regime. The censors have likely sniffed out the political fable in Not One Less, too. It lies in the transformation of Wei Minzhi from a dutiful proletarian child who's been coerced by thickheaded bureaucrats to take on a job she neither wants nor understands into an individual motivated by a quest -- to find the mischievous class troublemaker, Zhang Huike, who's disappeared from school. Like millions of Chinese children each year, he has run off to the city to find work because his family is in debt. It becomes clear that Wei Minzhi's persistence -- she searches every noodle shop and teeming boulevard and back alley -- is fueled not by schoolroom rote or Maoist slogans but by the personal belief that the boy, who is only eleven, belongs back with his classmates. She's not interested in dogma or any Maoist Great Leap Forward, just in making a small step for the children, who are only a few years younger than she is. Her humanity and her emotion are aroused by the lost boy. By searching for him, she also begins to find herself.
This delicate waif's dogged resolve will remind many viewers of an earlier Zhang heroine. For the single-minded farm woman Gong Li portrayed so beautifully in The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), the only goal in life was to get an apology from someone, anyone, in power after her husband is beaten by their mean-spirited village chief. Chinese authorities didn't like that portrayal of individual will at war with unfeeling officialdom any more than they'll like this one. One of Zhang's recurrent themes is the failure of socialism to provide actual social welfare, and this depiction of two urchins adrift in an anonymous city, filching table scraps and sleeping on sidewalks, is as vivid as anything in its antecedents, which include everything from David Copperfield to The Bicycle Thief. In the tiny, smudged faces of Wei Minzhi and Zhang Huike we find childhood betrayed by a cruel world, and it's not pretty. Luckily, Zhang's humanity runs as deep as his instinct for art. Whatever he may think about Chinese communism and bureaucracy, he is capable of finding small kindnesses amid the enduring chill of life. For that, and for the other qualities of his vision, he remains one of the planet's most valuable citizens -- no matter who his muse might be.