Not One Less caused controversy when it was demoted from official competition at Cannes, apparently for containing elements of propaganda. Zhang Yimou was unhappy with this suggestion and had the film withdrawn entirely, stating that the West (or at least the West as represented by the Cannes purveyors of ‘quality’ cinema) had an undesirable tendency to treat all Chinese films as statements either for or against the Chinese government. Every now and then it is surely constructive for someone to bring the Cannes selection process into the spotlight, if only to make apparent a post-1968 syndrome still affecting the moral judgements of some festival programmers.
The claim for Not One Less as pro-Establishment allegory is probably interpreted in things like Wei’s desire to ‘account for the collective’ and the resemblance of the story to real incidents during The Cultural Revolution (where students became teachers in order to unsettle the power structure favouring intellectuals and educators). Zhang’s point-of-view is that potential metaphors like these are better regarded as narrative devices in the service of a different kind of story.
Women determined to act in individualist ways within male-dominated social structures have always played prominent roles in Zhang’s films. Wei is depicted as a free thinking and tenacious person and in this respect we might want to consider her involved in a coming-of-age film about overcoming the burden of responsibility.
Just as the progression of Wei’s behaviour is motivated and reinforced by monetary gain, her journey from the village to the city accommodates themes relating to the unevenly distributed effects of China’s commercial modernisation. Wei’s ability to understand the function of television as a means for widespread dissemination of information displays her understanding of the medium as a powerful social mechanism. The little taste of subversion here is that Wei has no interest in the entertainment function of television, rather she treats it as a way of attending to her personal objective. Unaffected by modernity, she hasn’t yet lost sight of her goals.
Cannes seems to have misunderstood the contradictions that I think are quite apparent within Not One Less. To begin unearthing these it might be worth examining how the collective of students is conceived not simply as a mass group but also as a group containing individuals. It only takes one absentee to disturb the ruling system of organisation and his or her loss can have a startling influence on someone else.
Not One Less was filmed with inexperienced actors in a neorealist fashion and contains few of the visual flourishes associated with some of Zhang’s earlier films (no extreme low and wide angle shots of vivid silk drapes drying in the sun here). I’m not sure that Zhang really settled into a stylistic approach with this film. Quite often continuity cutting, for instance, is a little intrusive, making one feel that numerous takes were required for some scenes. Also, the lively narrative resolution seemed indifferent to the languid pacing throughout the rest of the story.
Much as I might admire some of the underlying themes that may exist within Not One Less, it didn’t provide me with any new remarkable impressions of China, Zhang as a supposed auteur nor of neorealist techniques in the service of authenticity.