In His Case Against China, Zhang Hires School Kids

Zhang Yimou has been called the “peasant director” because most of his films have been set and centered in the Chinese countryside. With Not One Less , from a screenplay and novel by Shi Xiangsheng, he has focused on a typically impoverished rural school in which even chalk for the blackboards, much less books, is in perilously short supply. The action is set in the village of Shuiquan, only a few hours drive from Beijing, but centuries behind the Chinese Economic Miracle.

Mr. Zhang has cast his film entirely with nonprofessionals, and most of these children. The lead role of Wei Minzhi, the 13-year-old schoolgirl and substitute teacher is played by none other than Wei Minzhi, a 13-year-old schoolgirl, and so on. Mr. Zhang stated in an interview that he did not rehearse his amateur cast. He was afraid that his untutored players would have picked up bad habits from having watched television, and would immediately strike poses if asked for anything as arcane as their motivation. But though he therefore declined to ask them to explore their inner depths, he refused to settle for whatever he got from one or two takes. On the whole, he has succeeded in moving his flimsily fanciful plot forward, even though there are lapses in timing and pacing when characters are called upon to react to conversational dead ends.

The fable begins with Wei being marched to school by teacher Gao, played by Gao Enman, Zhongxin primary school teacher, Shasangzi Village, Tianjiadian District, Yanqing County, Beijing. (With such a cast list-it resembles a résumé-one gets an impression of typecasting run amok.) Wei has been recruited to take Gao’s place while he is away taking care of his sick mother. Before he leaves, Gao promises his 13-year-old replacement that he will pay her extra if she keeps his 28-student class intact. It had already been depleted from its original 40 by parents desperate for the money to be gained from child labor in both the village and the neighboring city.

Thereby, the film’s title becomes Wei’s guiding principle as she begins her limited “teaching” duties with comic ineptness. All she is required to do is write a previously prepared lesson on the blackboard with her precious pieces of chalk, and then have students copy it in their notebooks while she sits watchfully on the front steps of the ramshackle school to keep them there until class is out.

When a pupil named Zhang Huike (played, of course, by a child named Zhang Huike) fails to show up one morning, Wei goes to his home, learns that he was gone to seek work in the city to support his debt-ridden, invalid and widowed mother. It is about this point that the central character begins losing plausibility and sympathy. Monomaniacal in her “not-one-less” mantra, she bullies her small charges into surrendering their meager allowances, and even the fruit of their labors on a neighborhood construction site, in order to raise money for bus fare to the city, where she hopes to retrieve Zhang Huike.

Perhaps one cannot expect a 13-year-old peasant girl to appreciate all the consequences of economic hardship for others. Still, Wei’s stoical Chinese deadpan becomes increasingly exasperating as she confronts the inevitable run-around from the various bureaucrats in the city. The teacher and the boy wander in frustrating separation through the indifferent streets. Then, almost miraculously, a special-affairs television program intervenes to bring Wei and Zhang together at last. This Frank Capra ending has been criticized inside China and out as a cave-in to the Government and its extreme sensitivity over any disclosures of widespread poverty and backwardness in the supposedly New China. Michelangelo Antonioni had the same problem some years ago when his extraordinary footage on China was virtually suppressed there and in the politically correct film festivals around the world, all overly anxious not to offend Beijing.

For my part, however, I cannot condemn Mr. Zhang for possibly settling for half a loaf in his supposed critique of the Chinese authorities for not adequately addressing the problems of rural poverty. After all, a school system that cannot afford an adult substitute teacher is evidence enough of uncaring values. And we know Mr. Zhang is on the side of the angels, which is more than we can say for our own Generalissimo Giuliani, who proposes spending billions for Steinbrenner stadiums and luxury boxes, but cannot spare even pennies to keep public libraries open at night for the poor of the city and their children.

The point is that even though Not One Less is burdened with frantic contrivances and convenient resolutions, its heart is in the right place. Indeed, Mr. Zhang’s stylistic flair with simple subjects somehow transfigures the concluding scene of children using their newly acquired crayons to draw Chinese letters on the blackboard into something magical and sacramental. At this stage in his career, Mr. Zhang clearly felt the need to plunge into the vast reality of a China that is changing before his eyes, and not entirely for the better. Mr. Zhang’s satiric pokes at modern city life reflect his stated feelings that the Chinese people are trading in their humanity for material gods and goods. He hardly wants to return to the horrors of Mao and Stalin, but that he remains skeptical of the claims made for the new orthodoxy of the free market is all to his credit.

A Brief History of Noir

Neo-Noir is the inspired title of a seven-week festival of post-classic- noir crime thrillers, which will run from Friday, Feb. 18 through Thursday, April 6, at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, and includes 61 feature-length films, all in 35-millimeter, ranging in period from the late 50′s to the late 90′s, and comprising both commercial hits like Pulp Fiction , Dirty Harry , Fargo and Blue Velvet , and underappreciated cult items like A Simple Plan , The Hot Spot , The Underneath and Get Carter .

Film historian Foster Hirsch discusses many of the films in the series in his new book, Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir (Limelight Editions). In his book, Mr. Hirsch quotes author Luc Sante thusly, ” Noir isn’t crime so much as it is existential dilemma.” Mr. Hirsch amplifies this insight by adding: “It is indeed in this sense that noir has been able to thrive: Noir names a knot of feelings and intuitions-dread, uncertainty, paranoia-that won’t go away. Noir ‘lives,’ but inevitably not in the same form as in its classic phase. Like any genre with a long run, it has had to reinvent itself, to bend and sway, to add and subtract, in order to keep up with changing times.”

The series kicks off Feb. 18 through Feb. 20 with Blake Edwards’ Experiment in Terror (1962) and J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear (1962), two thrillers with different degrees of paranoia and contrasting attitudes toward the effectiveness of law enforcement. In Terror , Lee Remick plays a straightforward bank teller menaced by an extortionist who wants her to embezzle funds from her bank. She goes straight to the F.B.I. in the person of ultra-competent Glenn Ford. There is no romance between the two, just intelligent cooperation to nail the sociopath, but not before the ordinary routines of urban life have been poisoned by the evil exuded by the extortionist. Cape Fear is much creepier in that the evil projected by the charismatic Robert Mitchum sociopath seems for a time to be omnipotent. The honest Gregory Peck character and his family seem helpless to avert complete destruction, and, to make matters worse, audiences fully enjoy Mitchum’s witty deviltry.

John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View , playing Feb. 21 and Feb. 22, are hellish delights for conspiracy theorists. Here the paranoia takes on the political dimensions of Presidential assassinations, prophetically in the case of Manchurian , and retroactively in the case of Parallax .

On Feb. 23, it’s Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) and Mickey One (1965), which reflect two different periods in the political calendar. Mickey One , serving as one of Mr. Penn’s most stylized tributes to the nouvelle vague , stars Warren Beatty at his most mystically existential. By contrast, Night Moves contains private eye Gene Hackman’s famous line that watching an Eric Rohmer movie is like watching paint dry. It was 1975, near the end of what we like to think of as the 60′s, and a little nudity was creeping onto the American screen from an American movie.

On Feb. 24, the full scope of the series is reflected most spectacularly in the deliriously lyrical double bill of François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960), my favorite Truffaut film, and one adapted fittingly enough from David Goodis’ pulp noir thriller, Down There , and Robert Bresson’s sublime Pickpocket . Charles Aznavour’s romantically jinxed pianist brings death to the two great loves of his life played by the ineffable Nicole Berger and Marie Dubois. How much more existential and paranoid can you get? Pickpocket (1959) endows neo- noir with an uncommon degree of spirituality, as it delights in the pickpocket’s legerdemain in a curiously Freudian transaction between the perp and the victim.