Winning Wei

Not one less," the latest film from Zhang Yimou, China's foremost director, has an almost spartan simplicity. Following the historical epic "To Live" and the lush, gilded "Shanghai Triad," it feels like a palate cleanser. Zhang has returned to the harsh countryside of "The Story of Qiu Ju." As in that Gong Li film, his heroine is a stubborn, obsessive woman who journeys to the city on a monomaniacal mission.

Wei Minzhi is a 13-year-old schoolgirl who has to fill in as a substitute teacher in her village's one-room schoolhouse. Only a year or two older than her charges, she hasn't much knowledge to pass on, or interest in teaching. Before he leaves to tend to his sick mother, the regular teacher exhorts her to prevent any of the students from dropping out: in this impoverished area, kids are always leaving to find jobs to help their families. He promises her a bonus if she succeeds. Wei fixates on this task, so when 10-year-old Zhang Huike vanishes from her class to search for work in the city, she trains her mulish will on the job of finding him and bringing him back. Why does she care so much? That's the mystery at the heart of this touching tale.

There isn't a professional actor in the movie. In most cases, Zhang has cast people in the roles they play in life--a village mayor plays a village mayor--and the characters are given the actors' names. This gives his fable of perseverance a documentary texture. "Not One Less" is the most emotionally direct of Zhang's films. Its upbeat ending seems almost propagandistic. But its charm is deceptive. Underneath the surface, the portrait of China and its people that emerges is bleak: example after example of poverty, desperation and indifference. Wei's triumph does not come easy.