Chinaís best known director, Zhang Yimou, is never one to
shirk a challenge. The man revered both in his homeland and
overseas for his glorious Oscar-nominated epics, Raise The Red
Lantern and Ju Dou, could today be making sweeping movies with
the biggest stars in the country, full of colour and light and
"won The Golden Lion"
But not only has the extraordinarily talented film-maker
steadfastly refused to go to Hollywood, he also last year turned
his back on pomp and circumstance, deciding to devote himself to
a modest movie about Chinese rural life, with not a single
professional actor involved.
Once again, he has emerged triumphant. His latest film, Not
One Less, won The Golden Lion (top prize) when it premiered at
the 1999 Venice International Film Festival, and a host of
overseas awards as it opened around the world. And it is bringing
a starkly moving picture of life in the Chinese countryside to
global audiences who have never before been exposed to such a
real insight into contemporary culture.
Itís not only they who have been overwhelmed by the film,
either. Throughout China it has been playing to packed houses of
both country folk and city dwellers who had lost sight of what it
is like to be living outside the main centres.
"The film was distributed in May 1999 in China and became
very successful," says Yimou, through an interpreter,
smiling widely. "I didnít think a film about a rural
school would be so successful in China, but is. A lot of people
cry when they see the film and instantly take money out of their
pockets to donate."
"a heart-rending search"
Not One Less is a terribly touching tale of a little village
school whose teacher has to be away for a month to tend to his
ailing mother. The mayor finds a substitute: a 13-year-old
whoís barely finished school herself, Wei Minzhi. Her task
is two-fold. Of course, she has to run classes but, most
importantly, she has to make sure no children drop out of the
school, which is already suffering a dramatic fall in its number
So when a ten year old disappears to the city to earn money to
help his debt-ridden family, she also travels there to try and
find him. Itís a heart-rending search.
The extraordinary thing about the film is that everyone who
took part simply played themselves. The village mayor is a real
life village mayor, the teacher is a village teacher, the kids
are just country schoolchildren, and 13-year-old pupil Wei Minzhi
was played by 13-year-old schoolgirl Wei Minzhi.
"It meant many takes and was very difficult to
make," says Yimou, 49, a slight figure in dark grey suit
jacket and pants and black T-shirt.
"no professional actors"
"There were no professional actors. The girl who played
the lead role was chosen from tens of thousands of children. Each
was given an exam. We sent collaborators to all schools in area,
a process that took 3-4 months. We had to look for a brave and
smart girl able to speak in public and cry and sing and who was
not too shy. Each one we auditioned was given five minutes to
For the very last screen test, the final candidates were made
to stand in a crowded city street and yell whatever came into
their heads at the top of their lungs. Some got too nervous and
couldnít do it. Wei just cut loose and shouted herself
hoarse. She got the part.
After the film was finished and audiences started seeing her
amazing performance, a number of acting schools wrote to Wei,
asking if she wanted to take formal acting classes. She asked
Yimou what she should do.
"I said no," he says, simply. "She may be able
to play herself, but probably not to become a real actor and
portray complex characters. I advised her to continue her studies
and go to high school and she did. A school invited her to go to
a big city and study at no cost. And now she wants to become a
"the subject of a great deal of
He smiles broadly. Not One Less was the subject of a great
deal of controversy around the Cannes Film Festival when it was
rejected by a jury who feared it might have been propaganda on
behalf of the Chinese Government. Yimou withdrew his film in
disgust. Yes, it had to be slightly re-edited to satisfy his
countryís censors, but it was neither pro the Chinese system
The Venice verdict looks to be a complete vindication of his
stand. Chinese rural schools are shown to be battling through
despite terrible poverty and a shortage of even the most basic
resources, while all donations made by audiences are being put
into a special fund for country schools. It also shows the sharp
schisms in contemporary Chinese society between the cities and
the country, hardly the united image of sophisticated progress
backed by an Arcadian idyll of bucolic pastoral life the regime
likes to promote.
While the actors are all painfully real, so too are the
settings Ė the film was made in Zhenningbao Village, Hebei
Province in Chinaís south east Ė as is the story. The
writer of the novel on which the film is based (who also wrote
the screenplay) was Shi Xiangsheng who worked as a teacher when
banished to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Many
of the events described actually happened.
"The biggest problem was to make the
"The biggest problem was to make the children believe
everything was for real, even though they were surrounded by
lights and cameras, and were on a movie set," says Yimou.
"We wanted to get the children to believe everything was
real; thatís why it took us so many takes to get it
Yimou himself has plenty of experience of rural life that he
could draw upon while making Not One Less. He also went to the
country during the Cultural Revolution and worked on farms and as
a labourer in a spinning mill, while still pursuing his hobby of
Now, of course, he is perhaps the foremost director in China,
responsible for bringing its unique history, atmosphere and
stories to the outside world, ever since his directorial debut in
1988 with Red Sorghum which won Best Picture at the Berlin Film
"against impossible odds"
Since then, he has diversified his craft amazingly. In 1997,
he directed the Puccini opera Turandot in Florence, Italy: it was
a sensational success against impossible odds.
"In the beginning, I was not interested in opera at
all," he says, frankly. "In fact, I didnít know
what opera was like. Then the opera house in Florence invited me
to direct its production, so I started learning about opera and
found it interesting. The big drawback, though, is that I
donít know what they are saying!"
In the end, that proved no hurdle at all. Now he has even
taken on board two more musical projects, to direct Mozartís
The Magic Flute in Germany and to direct a ballet based on a
Raise The Red Lantern script he has just completed. Then,
thereís a new movie about to go into production, different
again. Itís an elegant, stylised love story, filmed both in
black and white and colour.
"Iím not familiar with what
Yet while Hollywood keeps banging on Yimouís door, the
director insists heís not home to their calls. "No, I
would not like to make films abroad," he insists. He spreads
his hands and shrugs dismissively. "Iím not familiar
with what happens there," he explains simply.
China has enough stories of its own to keep him going for a
long, long time yet.