Not One Less
by Jonathan Walker

This Chinese “parable of the lost sheep” is a remarkable film.

Not One Less stormed theaters in China last year and became a huge economic success. This success even surprised the director, the acclaimed Zhang Yimou. Who would have thought a film shot with no professional actors could appeal to so many people?

In the poverty-stricken rural Zhenningbao village, a school teacher needs to leave school for a month to tend to his ailing mother. The mayor sends the 13 year-old girl as a substitute, Wei Minzhi (the actors’ names are the same as their characters). The teacher protests, but there is no other options. Lacking confidence in her, he offers Minzhi an extra 10 yuan if there are no less students by the month’s end. When a ten year-old trouble maker (Zhang Huike) leaves for the city to find work, Minzhi embarks on the impossible task of finding and retrieving him.

Not One Less is rooted in its Chinese context, but the story remains so simple that it can easily cross cultural boundaries. Zhang directs the film giving the characters quite a bit of emotional distance. By contrast, American filmmakers often make pornography of people’s emotions (in other words, taking something sacred and exploiting it sensually). Hollywood demands that the filmmaker show the audience when and how a character changes-and it must be seen in close-up.

Not One Less flies in the face of this “conventional wisdom.” Zhang refuses to show you what Minzhi thinks or feels. All he presents to us is her dogged persistence. Cultural bigots would likely accuse Zhang of being deficient as a storyteller. However, Zhang Yimou is one of the most critically acclaimed filmmakers alive and will surely be ranked among the best directors of his generation. Zhang’s style of maintaining distance actually broadens the film’s potential cultural interpretation. With its parable-like simplicity, Not One Less reaches across divergent cultural boundaries.

Not One Less could easily be seen as a re-telling of the parable of the lost sheep told by Jesus. Minzhi certainly senses the value of a single human being. She readily leaves the “ninety and nine” to seek out and bring back the one. Unlike American filmmaking (and remarkably similar to Christ’s parables), little is said about Minzhi’s emotions in the midst of her adventure. The story hinges on her actions. To the emotionally frugal Chinese, we are not told to what extent Minzhi actually cares for the boy or at what point her feelings for him change.

Allowing Not One Less to remain in the context of Chinese culture illuminates another layer to the story. During the New Year celebrations, Chinese people traditionally wish each other wealth in the coming year and provide money as gifts to the children. What we might readily dismiss as a mercurial tradition actually reflects the belief that temporal comfort is a blessing to be desired. Far from a diminishing result, Minzhi’s persistence in obtaining both her salary and the bonus lead to positive practical teaching, additional worldly blessings for her students, and saving Huike from a miserable life as a beggar.

Additionally, the history of Chinese culture is wrought with references to the simple soul, honed by diligence, which can have profound power and influence in society. Minzhi’s single-mindedness leads her to success in spite of the opinions of every right-thinking person in the city, and she accomplishes much more-she transforms the future of her entire village.

There is a question that must be asked outright. And while asking it might betray our ignorance, our ability to enjoy the film (as Westerners from a Judeo-Christian tradition) may hinge on the answer: Is Minzhi’s persistence an indication of her greed or does it hide a more noble emotion?

Her actions at the film’s beginning suggest greed; her breaking point at the television station suggests nobility. Did she change? If so, when? We may complain that we saw no indication of a change. But, the truth is that we did see her change. We saw her change in the way that people in real life usually do-through a persistence of action and measurable behavior. Certainly there was not a single, powerful moment. However, we do see the moment when she truly starts to love the boy and care about him-the moment was the film.

Not One Less offers us more than just a peek at contemporary Chinese culture, it can show us a part of ourselves. Whether we would rather see Minzhi as a shepherd figure seeking the lost sheep, or as a simple Chinese girl doggedly pursuing her goal, Zhang Yimou succeeds in showing us the contrast between what is least important in life (money) and what is most important (people).

2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.