Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 film, Rome Open City is generally considered the beginning point of a movement known in film as neo-realism. A product of WWII and post-War Italy, neo-realism laid open the socio-economic problems of its world in a grainy, truthful, and personal way and labored to unearth the potential of a ragged society to renew itself from the inside. Among other techniques, location shooting and the use of non-professional actors (sometimes even non-actors) contributed to a feeling of observation, and ultimately participation, on the audience’s part as filmmakers hinted towards social solutions to questions like poverty, unemployment, and industrialism. The movement was relatively short-lived, but distinct enough to leave an impression on film history that continues to show up in unlikely places. One of those unlikely places is a 1999 Chinese film about a school teacher; not revolutionary, not Italian, and not really part of the WWII discussion, director Zhang Yimou nonetheless borrows both the spirit and the conventions of the European tradition to similar ends in his own struggling part of the world.
A particular problem in contemporary China is the cycle of rural poverty: young children leave school in unbelievable numbers (over one million per year, according to the film) to find employment in larger cities and support their farming families, never finishing their education. Many of these children end up homeless, and few ever qualify themselves for better, or even liveable wages. Zhang Yimou’s film Not One Less shapes this problem into an affecting story of a young and inexperienced substitute teacher, Wei Minzhi, in a provincial village and her stubborn efforts to keep her class intact for just one month. Teaching itself is her first challenge, but when she decides to follow an absent student into the city to bring him back, she trips into a series of endless and unimaginable obstacles. Her own tenacity and resourcefulness is eventually complemented by a concerned TV station manager, but it is the love “Teacher Wei” develops for the missing member of her class that is truly effectual.
Despite the notion found in some reviews, the film is not a true story, but a true situation presented in a very truthful way. Yimou uses small, unobtrusive (sometimes even hidden) cameras to keep the actors’ performances unself-conscious; keeps to medium and long shots, framing them as though through the eyes of present observers, and avoiding fancy close-ups or angles; uses long takes for the same purpose, cutting less frequently to maintain a consistent perspective; and relies on natural light in real locations for a sort of documentary quality. Perhaps the most apparent technical nod to his European predecessors is Yimou’s decision to use exclusively non-professional actors, the same courageous and effective move made by Vittorio De Sica in 1948 with his famous Bicycle Thieves. Everyone in the film goes by his or her real name and fills the same role in the story as in life: the mayor is played by a mayor, the teacher by a teacher—even the TV station secretary and stationery store clerk are actually employed as such. None of the actors were allowed to read the entire script ahead of time, but were given instructions day by day, with the result that the performances are natural at least, and in places almost painfully real. That apparent realism is most engaging in the school, where a room full of children are presented, though briefly, as whole characters and true children: resourceful, determined, dynamic, alternately self-absorbed and selfless, deeply caring, fearful, stubborn, curious, incorrigible, and capable.
And that is the point. Identifiers like “neo-realism” are interesting, but only become useful when the techniques or philosophies succeed in reaching their audience. Whether involving children in a hopeful story, or adults in a social cause, the film’s effectiveness—significance, tenderness, encouragement, and real joy—rests on our relationship with those children, as truthful and resonant characters.