“Words should be as big as a donkey’s turd.” This is what a village primary schoolteacher tells Wei Minzhi, his substitute for the next month, so that she doesn’t exceed the school’s allotment of chalk. The dilapidated one-room school is obviously underfunded. Minzhi is thirteen years old; her pupils are eleven on down. The regular teacher makes attrition Minzhi’s principal responsibility. Already ten students have recently dropped out. There should be not one less student in attendance upon his return.
When his father dies, and with his mother sick, 11-year-old Zhang Huike does drop out, moving alone to Jiangjiakou City in order to find work. Hitherto shy, Minzhi becomes an expert classroom teacher as she summons practical mathematics in order to figure out, with the help of her students, what money they must raise in order to get her to the city and back, along with Huike. How many bricks must they move at what renumeration per brick at the nearby factory? But all plans fail, and a determined Minzhi, armed with Huike’s work address, walks and hitchhikes to Jiangjiakou City. But Huike has disappeared, and so Minzhi must find him first. Along the way, strangers make helpful suggestions, and Minzhi’s efforts lead her to a television studio, where, appearing on the highest-rated talk show, she breaks down into tears as she implores people to help her find Huike. Meanwhile, Huike, homeless, has nearly starved. He and Minzhi reunite. The TV show’s anchor asks him on the bus ride home what he will most remember about the city. His reply: “That I had to beg for food.”
There’s a vast visual contrast between the countryside, where Minzhi can feel at home and lead younger children, and the city, where she is forever lost and asking for directions. The forbidding TV camera lens into which she is coaxed to speak resembles HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), but progress has its benefits: donations to the school come pouring in from viewers. Still, Zhang’s film primarily reflects on the destructive role played by China’s new capitalism. Throughout the film, one thing or another requires money—and without it, people are dismissed and discarded. Among the film’s closing statistics is this: “Poverty forces over one million children to leave school every year.” This is the threat that Minzhi herself feels. In trying to rescue Huike, she is empathizing from the depth of her own poverty that has sent her, ill-prepared, into this month-long, ill-paying job of hers.
Nonprofessionally cast, Yi ge dou bu neng shao is a “message movie” with incredible heart (a wide range of characters, including the children, are affectionately drawn), and it is one of Zhang’s most beautiful films.
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