Not One Less Review

In the provincial Chinese village of Shuiqian, Teacher Gao runs a small primary school. Hearing that his mother is dying, he applies for leave. The only substitute Mayor Tian is a thirteen-year-old girl, Wei Minzhi. In this poverty-stricken area, children are leaving school early to find work, and the school's original forty pupils have been reduced to eighteen. Gao doubts that Wei is up to the task, but promises her a bonus if the number of pupils is the same when he returns. Wei soon has trouble with Zhang Huike, a bright but disruptive boy. When Wei hears that his mother has sent him to the city to find work, she is determined to bring him back and sets off alone, with little money, to find him...

Zhang Yimou has never topped his first three films released in the West, all starring his then lover Gong Li: Red Sorghum, Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, all of which are crying out for good DVD editions. (I haven't seen Code Name Cougar, which Zhang made between Red Sorghum and Ju Dou, but it's reputedly a potboiler.) Zhang began his career as a cinematographer, photographing among others Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth and The Big Parade, before becoming a director. His films are probably more accessible to Westerners than others of the Chinese "Fifth Generation". After his break-up with Gong, his work has tailed off a little, though still well worth seeing. Along with The Road Home, Not One Less (winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival) was made with major studio backing (Columbia Pictures's Asian division), which probably explains why they are the first of Zhang's films to be released on DVD, at least in the UK.

Zhang's earlier films were notable for their bold use of colour, especially the red featured in the title of two of them. Not One Less is most reminiscent of Zhang's fifth feature, The Story of Qiu Ju. Both films have contemporary settings, documentary-style cinematography (using hidden cameras) and a largely or entirely non-professional cast. (In Not One Less, the leading characters bear the same names as the actors who play them.) Qiu Ju (a deglamorised Gong Li) was a pregnant village woman seeking reparation for an insult to her husband. in Not One Less, Wei Minshi searches for a lost schoolboy. Both heroines operate on sheer determination, despite numerous obstacles. Not One Less finally gives way to a sentimentality kept at bay for most of the film – children can do that to a director – but for most of the time holds your attention.

Columbia's DVD is in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphic. It's a good looking transfer, showing off Hou Yong's natural-light photography. The opening half, set in the countryside, is intentionally more colourful than the city scenes, but the transfer is all as it should be, with good shadow detail. Only some minor artefacting (look at the man's legs in the opening shot) let the disc down.

The end credits (which are in English) don't contain a Dolby logo, so I don't know what sound format Not One Less had in cinemas. However, the DVD has a Dolby Surround track with the original Mandarin dialogue. It's a very busy mix too, with a lot of ambient sound in the rear speakers: dogs and cattle in the countryside, city noises later on. It doesn't have the definition of a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (which the Road Home DVD has), but it's very acceptable. There is also an isolated score option, also in Dolby Surround.

The only other extra is the US theatrical trailer. It's one of those dreadful efforts that seem to be used to promote foreign-language movies. There's a voiceover but no actual dialogue (to avoid putting people off with subtitles). Shots of crying children - there are only two such scenes in the film and they're both in the trailer – make the film look more sentimental than it actually is. Needless to say, there are major spoilers here, though out of context. For the record, the trailer runs 1:31 and is full-frame open-matte with a Dolby Surround soundtrack. There are twenty-eight chapter stops, which is generous for a not especially long film.

Not One Less won't go down as one of Zhang Yimou's best films, but it's certainly worth seeing. The disc does a good job with the picture and sound, and makes you wonder when someone will get round to releasing the director's earlier films on DVD.

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Last updated: 31/05/2018 22:03:49

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