The Price of Knowledge

Teaching to transgress: Director Zhang Yimou on the set of Not One Less

The Sundance Film Festival isn't particularly known for its hospitality toward world cinema, much less its charitable contributions to rural elementary schools in far-off countries. But when the fest recently screened director Zhang Yimou's Not One Less, an allegorical tale of China's changing fortunes, the audience at one tiny strip-mall theater was moved to start a collection of funds for the indigent Shuiquan Primary School, where much of the film takes place. While a Sundance cynic might chalk up this charity to the activist impulses of shrewd PR, the 50-year-old Zhang, visiting Park City for the first time, confessed to being "deeply touched and very surprised" by this "important gesture."

Whatever the origins of this grassroots campaign, one is reminded that the film itself has to do with the benefits of collective action, as a 13-year-old substitute teacher named Wei Minzhi (played by a schoolgirl of the same name) enlists her unruly students to chip in for a bus ticket to the big city, where a troublemaking classmate (Zhang Huike) has gone to earn money for his impoverished family. It's a radical departure for Zhang on a number of levels. Unlike the visually voluptuous, thematically bleak melodramas he created with his erstwhile partner, the actress Gong Li (Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, Shanghai Triad), the new film is a modestly budgeted work with nonprofessional child actors, set in the dusty countryside and shot in the spare, documentarylike manner of much recent Iranian cinema. (Zhang's debt to Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's House? extends to both style and story.) And where the Chinese government's strict censorship practices have often sent Zhang and other filmmakers of the so-called Fifth Generation (e.g., Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang) into historical territory to gather their metaphoric critiques, Not One Less is both contemporary and relatively straightforward--and partially funded by the government. And it has a happy ending.

But what remains in full force is the director's trademark communication of struggle: The inexhaustible young teacher will stop at nothing to bring her student home, even in the face of institutional bureaucracy and adult insensitivity. The terms of this fight are inscribed in the filmmaker's own past: When the Cultural Revolution erupted in the late Sixties, Zhang's secondary-school studies were suspended while he and his family were sent to the countryside for ten years of hard labor. Eventually accepted to the Beijing Film Academy, he put his education in the service of a career spent calmly raging against the oppressive aspects of Chinese ritual and tradition (beginning with his work as cinematographer on Chen's Yellow Earth and The Big Parade).

These days, as China continues its inexorable move toward a market economy, Zhang finds himself in the unfamiliar position of needing to consider his audience--a position he described to me at the festival (through a translator) while seated comfortably on the sofa of another critic's rented condo. Like his heroine, Zhang stands to be compensated for keeping the masses glued to their seats. But neither teacher nor filmmaker is in it for the money.


CITY PAGES: Not One Less seems optimistic by the standards of your other films. It even suggests, in the end, a faith in technology to reach people. Where does that optimism come from?

ZHANG YIMOU: I actually don't agree. Yes, the ending is happier than in some of my other films. But the outcome of the story is either that the boy is found or not--and either way, that's not really what interests me. What interests me is the process of searching: We see the hardship of ordinary people on the bottom of the social strata, and the bittersweetness, too, as well as the contrast between the city and the village, the difference in values. The people in the city are helpful; they're shown giving the boy food, but at the same time, they never once ask, "How are you doing?"

CP: The film does seem to have a faith in the effectiveness of education when it's tied to a real-world agenda. The students suddenly become interested in math once the equations have a tangible purpose--to calculate the amount of money needed for a bus ticket. And the film has a real-world agenda, too, right?

ZHANG: Yes. It reminds me of the Beijing Film Academy professors: When they talk about cinema, they talk about the ability of film to educate, to recognize things from the real world, in addition to the aesthetic side. Cinema can definitely do all that. The scene where the kids calculate the bus fare actually has another intention, though. In my earlier film, The Story of Qiu Ju, [the heroine] didn't count money. It was never an issue; she got what she needed. For the kids in Not One Less, each penny counts. It represents the difference in China between 1992 and 1999: China is becoming such a materialistic society. It's getting wealthier, and people are worshiping materialism more than anything. That's another theme that I want to convey.  

CP: In relation to those changes, how do you trace the evolution of Fifth Generation cinema over the last decade?

ZHANG: It's more individualistic, less generational than when we first started. Each of us is pursuing different dreams. The Fifth Generation began by talking about history and culture, and now, personally, I find that I'm more interested in moving toward a kind of humanism. Of course, as the society changes, the audience changes, too. Their tastes are changing. If we made a film like Yellow Earth now, nobody would go to see it. The audience wants more story-oriented films, and as the market changes, we have to respond to those changes. Certainly, when you look at the progression of Chen Kaige's films, from Yellow Earth to Farewell My Concubine and, now, The Emperor and the Assassin, you can see that he's becoming more interested in stories.

CP: When Chen was in Minneapolis recently, he said: "In China today, filmmaking is different with the market economy. I have to consider both artistic and commercial value. Otherwise you do a pure art-house movie, and maybe you can't raise any money for your next project."

ZHANG: I agree. Each of us is facing this problem. And this is not only true for our generation; it's also true for the Sixth Generation and maybe the seventh. It makes sense to want to account for the larger audience these days.

CP: You and Chen are responding to those shared circumstances in very different ways, though: The Emperor and the Assassin is a huge historical epic, and Not One Less is a small, intimate film.

ZHANG: It is different. The more films I make, the more I'm interested in making lower-budget films. Because of my name, I can get the money to finance [a lower-budget film] pretty easily, and be able to do more artistic things as well. My next film, The Road Home, is a smaller film. Chen, on the other hand, is looking for bigger budgets, but when you do that, it's not so easy to please people and achieve what you want to achieve artistically. So it's a different path for us.

CP: If the role of a filmmaker is akin to that of an educator, how does the "classroom" look to you at this point? Do you imagine a different kind of audience than when you started your career?

ZHANG: I must say, I didn't think about the audience when I was making films in the Eighties. What concerned me at that time was making an individualistic, personal film--and also considering how to deal with censorship. The audience never entered into it. Now, as I grow older, the audience is a bigger issue. So I can't really compare the present audience to the one of the past. But I can say that, when I think of the audience, I don't think of them as one unanimous group. I think they're divided into subcategories. Most Chinese audiences are interested primarily in Hollywood films. I'm not going to criticize that kind of audience, because those [Hollywood] films have a certain function. But it's a smaller group of people--the thinking person--that will come to see my films.

CP: In terms of themes, it's striking how many Chinese films of the Eighties and Nineties--not to mention the Thirties and Forties--have been focused on the plight of women. Why do you think this has remained such a preoccupation?

ZHANG: You see it throughout Chinese literature as well. China is a very patriarchal society. The films of the Thirties and Forties are interesting because they came during a time of social movements to liberate women--and many of those films are far superior to what we're doing now. In the Eighties and Nineties, I think, there were so many films about women because, even though women were seemingly equal to men by this point, in the men's mind--and especially in rural China--things hadn't changed that much, and they still haven't. Maybe that's why so many of us are making films about the hardships of women.

CP: It's interesting in this connection that you have often described your work as "apolitical." Is that still how you see it?

ZHANG: I think I will go on saying that I'm an "apolitical" filmmaker, only because I think that I live in a highly politicized society. Given my family history, how much we suffered because of politics in China, it is my dream not to deal with politics. But it's something you can't avoid. For one thing, the Western critics look at everything from a political angle. But I still dream of the day when I will not be a political filmmaker.  


Not One Less starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema.

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