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At the movies

Film Teachers


If Zhang Yimou, world-class Chinese director of “Red Sorghum” and “To Live,” has made a smaller movie in Not One Less, it’s just as powerful as his earlier epic dramas that starred the celebrated actress Gong Li.

“Not One Less” starts out as a documentary of life in a poor, mountainous village, concentrating on the problem of providing elementary schooling for some 27 children 10 years old or younger. The regular teacher, Gao Enman, has to leave for a month because his mother is dying, and the mayor brings him a 13-year-old primary school graduate, Wei Minzhi (played by herself) as the only available substitute. Gao is appalled at Wei’s lack of training, and tells her that 12 children have already disappeared this year; she must not let any more get away. He counts out 26 pieces of chalk for the school days he will be away, and tells her to take his book, write out the daily lessons on the blackboard and make the students copy them.

It looks hopeless; the children have no respect for their new teacher’s authority. After covering the blackboard with a lesson, Wei simply tells them they can’t leave the schoolroom until sunset, and sits down outside in front of the closed door. Unsmiling and bossy, she makes no attempt to win over her young charges except to take them out for a brief singing exercise. But her stubbornness seems useful when she makes the class troublemaker, Zhang Huike, apologize to a girl who felt humiliated when he read her diary to the class.

The movie follows the tentative bonding between teacher and students as Wei reads the class list each day to make sure they are all still there, and later involves them in a common effort after Zhang Huike, whose family is deeply in debt, runs off to the city to find work. Together they determine how much money Wei will need for a bus ticket to the city and to bring the boy back; they work as a group to earn money by moving bricks and accept their small equal share of two bottles of cola bought with what they believe is in excess of the needed bus money. They go on to solve more and more complex computations when they learn that the bus tickets are far more expensive than they believed. But these acts of intelligence and solidarity -- including crowding together to conceal Wei when she boards the bus without a ticket -- seem to be of no avail, since she is ejected a short way outside the village.

“Not One Less” takes a more dramatic, even heroic, turn at this point as the undaunted Wei tramps on by herself to the provincial capital, finally hitching a ride in the back of a truck. The city is chaotic and indifferent, and she hasn’t a clue as to how to find her missing student. Her pigheadedly comic yet unbearably moving efforts are occasionally interrupted by shots of a forlorn Zhang Huike walking past a line of food vendors. The movie generates a powerful emotional reaction precisely because of Zhang Yimou’s restraint, his leisurely, apparently detached approach to his story. Just as he makes no effort to prettify the village, Wei is never seen as “charming,” remaining largely impassive throughout her ordeal. We are all the more overwhelmed, therefore, when she cries near the end in response to an interviewer’s question, and especially when she finally smiles.

Making “Not One Less” is a special achievement in view of pervasive Chinese censorship. Approval was probably facilitated by setting its action in an earlier time, as indicated when Teacher Gao wants Wei to learn a song honoring Chairman Mao. Zhang Yimou obviously wants to call attention to the scarcity of educational resources allocated to the Chinese countryside, but his movie has such inherent power that it transcends any topical or ideololgical factor.

Curt Hanson, remembered for the sophisticated crime-thriller “L.A. Confidential,” is working in comedy this time, directing a movie version of Michael Chabon’s novel. Wonder Boys opens with an already-stoned Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) conducting a college creative writing class. Douglas’ comic voice-over discloses the fact that his wife has left him just as the literary festival, Word-Fest, sponsored by his college, is about to take place.

It promises to be stressful, since his gay editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), who hasn’t had a major success since Grady’s earlier best-selling novel, is flying in from New York, hoping to see the new manuscript. The problem is that Grady has already reached page 2,611 in his book, but hasn’t a clue how to end it. When Grady arrives at Word-Fest, Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), the college chancellor, with whom he has been having an affair -- and who is the wife of his department chair -- lets him know that she is pregnant, and he is finally at a loss for words.

Although it’s a fine farce premise and cinematographer Dante Spinotti makes good use of Pittsburgh’s industrial architecture and wintry bad weather, Hanson also wants to make it all seem significant. He’s got a good cast, and there are lots of laugh lines in Steve Kloves’ screenplay, but there are also signs of strain. Instead of involving the audience in the Grady/Sara relationship and exploiting the comic talents of Frances McDormand, the emphasis falls on Grady acting as mentor to James Leer (Tobey McGuire), a troubled and possibly talented student writer who seems incapable of telling the truth. In a further twist, Crabtree, after arriving at Word-Fest accompanied by an impossibly tall drag queen, soon shifts both his professional and nonprofessional attention to Leer.

Writers and editors are surely fair game, and “Wonder Boys” should amuse anyone not depending on it for an understanding of how books get written or published. Its sense of fun never takes off, however; something as wacky as Brady getting bitten by the Gaskell’s blind bulldog and Leer promptly shooting it and stuffing it in the trunk of Grady’s car could take place in an old-time screwball comedy, but such a movie would build on the incident. Here it seems only a pretext for having Michael Douglas limp through the rest of the proceeding. The character’s marijuana-induced befuddlement probably allowed for cynically amusing interior monologues in the book. The movie merely exhibits Brady’s genial haziness, and the joke turns sour after the dead dog is left in Leer’s bed in his parents’ home after Grady and Crabtree -- having discovered the young writer’s brilliance -- take him away.

There’s directorial intelligence behind many details in “Wonder Boys,” plus a fine score with songs by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young. Recurring shots of Michael Douglas pecking away at an old-fashioned typewriter in a rumpled chenille robe with puffed sleeves are enjoyably silly. Happily, one of the young women in Grady’s course (Katie Holmes), who had earlier looked on her teacher worshipfully, finally gives him some sane advice -- both for his writing and his life -- “You’ve got to make choices.” But the happy ending seems tacked on rather than a needed last fillip of wackiness.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer.

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2000